Much has been written about the arrest of Rosa Parks, a woman who defied segregation laws in Montgomery by refusing to give up her seat to a White passenger on a bus. Her move, on December 1, 1955, started the boycott that would help galvanize the civil rights movement. A middle Georgia native named Jo-Ann Robinson was instrumental in organizing that boycott.
In fact, Robinson kickstarted the whole Montgomery bus boycott that helped propel Martin Luther King Jr. to prominence. Right after the arrest of Parks, it was Robinson who helped galvanize support for the bus boycott, and her efforts led to a court order that desegregated buses in Montgomery. But few know about her story.
Born in Culloden, a small town in Monroe County, on April 17, 1912, Robinson was the 12th and last child to Owen and Dollie Webb Gibson. Her father died when she was six years old. After his death, Robinson and her family moved to Macon. She graduated from Ballard-Hudson High School as the valedictorian and pursued a degree in education at Fort Valley State College, now Fort Valley State University, where she graduated in 1934.
Robinson taught at Ballard-Hudson and then went to what is now Clark Atlanta University for a master’s degree. She then proceeded to Alabama State College in Montgomery in 1949 and became a member of the Women’s Political Council (WPC), a political organization whose aim was to fight racism in Montgomery, Alabama while providing leadership opportunities for women.
In 1949, Robinson was verbally attacked by a bus driver. She had boarded the bus to Ohio to see her family during the Christmas holiday but after sitting down, she realized the bus was not moving. And that was when the bus driver started yelling at her.
“The bus driver’s yelling at her to move to the segregated section, and so she’s just frightened with terror and just stays there and the bus driver comes up and yells at her and she just stumbles off the bus, embarrassed and ashamed; and from that point forward she made the integration of buses a personal priority of hers,” Mark Smith, a history teacher at Mary Persons High School, said in an interview.
Robinson became the president of the WPC in 1950. And even more than a year before the Montgomery boycott, she wrote a letter to the mayor of Montgomery asking for the desegregation of buses. Actually, Robinson said in a 1979 interview that she and the WPC started planning a bus boycott three years before Parks was arrested.
On December 1, 1955, when Parks was arrested, Robinson spent the entire night mimeographing tens of thousands of flyers calling for a boycott of the Montgomery bus system. On the leaflets printed, she told Blacks not to ride the bus on December 5, 1955, which fell on a Monday. She had her students at Alabama State College distribute them.
“We, we had just everything in our favor, because we distributed the thirty-five thousand copies and most of the people got the message, but there were outlying areas that didn’t get it. And one lone Black woman who was so faithful to her white lady as she called it, went back to work and took one of the circulars to this woman so she would know what the Blacks had planned. When the woman got it, she immediately called the media, and then following that, the television, the radios, and news, and evening newspapers, everybody told those persons whom we had not reached, that there would be the boycott. So the dye was cast,” Robinson recalled in an interview.
The Montgomery bus boycott became the first massively successful resistance in the South. After the successful one-day boycott on Monday, the boycott organizers had a meeting to vote on whether to continue the bus boycott. Robinson said the plan was for the pastors to continue the boycott after its success on Monday.
“The people wanted to continue that boycott,” Robinson said in the 1979 interview. “They had been touched by the persecution, the humiliation that many of them had endured on buses, and they voted for it unanimously.”
Black leaders including Reverends Ralph Abernathy and King and labor union activist E.D. Nixon then joined Robinson in establishing the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). King was made president and the MIA then planned a longer boycott to protest racial segregation and discrimination on city buses. The boycott lasted for 13 months.
Robinson, who became the MIA newsletter editor and served on its executive board, had her car windows broken during the 13 months of the boycott. She also watched as police poured acid on her car. And although she reached a point where she was scared, that didn’t stop her from her fight for racial justice. She and her WPC members even helped provide transportation for many Black residents during the bus boycott.
Robinson later recalled that many Black people lost their jobs during that thirteen-month period because the boycott had aroused the antagonism of the White community. But the MIA stepped in to help. “Every Monday night we (MIA) held meetings. They would take up collection for those persons who didn’t have jobs to help them to get along,” Robinson said.
The boycott ended after the U.S. Supreme Court forced Montgomery to integrate the buses. King emerged as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, with the Montgomery bus boycott inspiring other civil rights demonstrations in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s.
“We had won self-respect…We felt that we were somebody, that somebody had to listen to us, that we had forced the White man to give what we knew was a part of our own citizenship,” Robinson said of the court verdict in an interview.
She continued to participate in local women’s organizations after having moved to Los Angeles in 1961 to teach English in the city’s public schools. Robinson died in Los Angeles in 1992. She was honored in Culloden in June 2021 with a historical marker near 3 Old Highway 341 detailing her role in the Civil Rights Movement.