|Lonnie G. Bunch III, museum director, historian, lecturer, and author, is proud to present a page from Our American Story, a regular online series for Museum supporters. It showcases individuals and events in the African American experience, placing these stories in the context of a larger story—our American story.
Jo Ann Robinson: A heroine of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
March is Women’s History Month. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is celebrating the lives of remarkable African American women, both the well-known and those whose stories have been largely forgotten—including Jo Ann Robinson, an unsung civil rights heroine who played a key role in the historic 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Born on April 17, 1912, in Culloden, Georgia, Robinson distinguished herself early as the valedictorian of her high school class, went on to become the ﬁrst person in her family to graduate from college, and then fulfilled her dream of becoming a teacher.
She taught in the Macon, Georgia, public schools for five years while earning a master’s degree from Atlanta University. She also pursued English studies at Columbia University in New York City. She moved to Montgomery in 1949 to teach at Alabama State College.
In Montgomery, she became active in the Women’s Political Council (WPC), a local civic organization for African American professional women that was dedicated to fostering women’s involvement in civic affairs, increasing voter registration in the city’s black community, and aiding women who were victims of rape or assault.
Dress sewn by Rosa Parks. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Gift of the Black Fashion Museum founded by Lois K. Alexander-Lane.
Soon after arriving in Montgomery, Robinson was verbally attacked by a public bus driver for sitting in the “whites only” section of the bus. When she became the WPC’s president the following year, she made desegregating the city’s buses one of the organization’s top priorities.
The WPC repeatedly complained to Montgomery city leaders about unfair seating practices and abusive driver conduct. But the group’s concerns were dismissed, leading Robinson to begin laying plans for a bus boycott by the city’s African American community. Following Rosa Parks’ arrest in December 1955 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person, Robinson and a few associates jumped into action. They copied tens of thousands of leaflets and distributed them across the city, calling for a one-day boycott.
Following the overwhelming success of the one-day boycott, Montgomery’s black citizens decided to continue the campaign, establishing the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to organize the effort and electing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the MIA’s president.
Robinson chose not to accept an ofﬁcial MIA position for fear of jeopardizing her job at Alabama State, but she worked behind the scenes as a member of the MIA’s executive board, wrote and edited the MIA weekly newsletter, and volunteered in the carpool system that helped African Americans get to and from work. In his memoir of the boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King said of Robinson,“Apparently indefatigable, she, perhaps more than any other person, was active on every level of the protest.”
Despite Robinson’s efforts to stay out of the limelight, she was among a group of boycott leaders arrested but never tried. She was also targeted with several acts of intimidation. One local police ofﬁcer threw a stone through her window, and another poured acid on her car. Eventually, Alabama’s governor ordered the state police to guard the homes of Robinson and other boycott leaders.
The boycott continued until December 20, 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated seating on buses unconstitutional.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was one of the first successful protests of segregation in the Deep South, inspiring other nonviolent civil rights protests. It also established Dr. King as a prominent national figure. Robinson was especially proud of the role that women played in the boycott’s success, saying:
“Women’s leadership was no less important to the development of the Montgomery Bus Boycott than was the male and minister-dominated leadership.”
—Jo Ann Robinson
In a 1976 interview, Robinson pointed out, “That boycott was not supported by a few people; it was supported by 52,000 people.”
Walking by Charles Henry Alston. Walking recalls the bus boycotts in the 1950s and anticipated the civil rights marches of the 1960s. The work not only depicts the spirit and conviction of the civil rights protests, it also references the significant role of women and youth in the movement. National Museum of African American History and Culture. Gift of Sydney Smith Gordon, © Charles Alston Estate.
After the boycott victory, Robinson continued to teach at Alabama State until 1960, when she and other faculty supporters of student sit-ins at the college resigned. She went on to teach at Grambling College in Louisiana, then moved to Los Angeles, where she taught in the public school system until her retirement in 1976.
Her memoir, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, was published in 1987. In it, she expressed her great pride in the boycott’s success. She remained actively involved in her community and in local politics until her death in Los Angeles on August 29, 1992.
With the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, courageous African American women like Jo Ann Robinson are finally receiving the recognition they so richly deserve. As a supporter, I hope you take pride in helping bring the forgotten stories of unheralded African American heroes into the spotlight, elevating the African American experience to its rightful place at the center of our nation’s history!
All the best,
Lonnie G. Bunch III
P.S. Our nation has been shaped by many brave African American women visionaries and leaders—including those whose stories have not been told until now. Their stories remind us that history never stands still, but keeps marching forward. Thank you for your support. I hope you will consider joining as a Member or making a donation today.
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Mug shot of Jo Ann Robinson in the wake of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Montgomery County Archives.
Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ralph Abernathy, Ebenezer Baptist Church During Bus Boycott 1955; printed 1987. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Charles Moore.