April 17 - Happy Birthday, Jo Ann Robinson

Posted on April 17, 2018


Do you know who organized the successful bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955?

You probably think it was Martin Luther King, Jr., right?
Or maybe Rosa Parks?

Both of those brave and dedicated people were heroes, all right, and both were involved with the bus boycott. But there were PLENTY of heroes involved with creating the Civil Rights movement. The actual organizer of the bus boycott was today's not-all-that-famous birthday, Jo Ann Robinson.

Born in Georgia on this date in 1912, Robinson earned a bachelor's and a master's degree. She was first a public school teacher and then a teacher at a college, and she lived and worked in Georgia, Texas, and Alabama.

Long before Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting on a Montgomery public bus (!), Robinson was screamed at on a Montgomery public bus. Remember, in that city and at that time, the public buses were segregated - white people in the front, and black people in back - but the definitions of "front" and "back" changed depending on how crowded the bus was. 

In the late 1940s, Robinson, a highly educated college teacher, was SCREAMED at by the white bus driver. He had stopped the bus in order to yell at her, and I guess he got out of his driver's seat and approached her, because she fled the bus in fear that he was going to punch her! 

As I bet you've guessed, Robinson was yelled at for sitting in the "white section" of the bus - even though the white section was actually empty!

Robinson was angry at the treatment she and other black people got on the city's buses, so she started to work on desegregating the bus system.



At that point it was 1950, and Robinson was the president of the Women's Political Council. She worked with an attorney to meet with Montgomery's mayor and other city officials. They had no interest in making life more fair for black citizens, so she began to plan a bus boycott.

When Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, Robinson already a plan. She and the WPC planned a 1-day boycott to occur on December 5, just four days after the arrest, and she enlisted the help of several other people, including some students, to make and pass out tens of thousands of fliers calling for the boycott.

Whether you plan a boycott, a protest demonstration, or a march, you never know if people will really support you. There were between 40 and 50 thousand black people living in Montgomery, at the time; if only a few of them joined in, the boycott would not even be noticed.

Black people in Montgomery
walked a LOT during that bus
boycott, and they also arranged
elaborate carpools to help one
another get to where they
needed to go.
But more than a few of the black residents joined in. As a matter of fact, 90 percent of the black residents stayed off the city bus system on December 5!

NINETY PERCENT!! Wow, the boycott was beyond successful!

With that level of participation, Montgomery leaders, including Dr. King, quickly moved to extend the boycott. It ended up lasting about 13 months - and the result of the boycott was a Supreme Court ruling that bus segregation was illegal. Actually, the bus boycott is considered one of the "seminal" events of the Civil Rights Movement - that is, one of the most important and influential events - because the strategy of mass nonviolent protest combined with dignity and ethical behavior ended up being the most used and most successful strategies of the movement.



By the way...

...in case you are thinking that poor Jo Ann Robinson never got any of the glory for what was largely her plan, apparently Robinson deliberately stayed out of the limelight in order to protect her teaching position at the Alabama State College. 

Sadly, her keeping out of the limelight didn't help her escape from unpleasantness. In 1956, a police officer threw a stone through a window of her house, and a few weeks later another police officer poured acid on her car. You know you're in trouble when police officers are breaking laws and destroying your property. I mean, who do you complain to?

Robinson was also arrested at some point! Here is her booking photograph:


Doesn't she look the epitome of dignified and ethical grace?

The governor of Alabama stepped in and ordered state police to guard Robinson's house and the houses of other boycott leaders.

Robinson ended her life near where I live: in Los Angeles, CA.


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