An instrumental figure in initiating and sustaining the Montgomery bus boycott, Jo Ann Robinson was an outspoken critic of the treatment of African Americans on public transportation. In his memoir, Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King said of Robinson: “Apparently indefatigable, she, perhaps more than any other person, was active on every level of the protest” (King, 78).
Born on 17 April 1912, in Culloden, Georgia, Robinson was the youngest of 12 children. After her father’s death, her family sold their farm and moved to Macon, Georgia. Robinson graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and went on to earn her BS from Fort Valley State College, becoming the first person in her family to graduate from college. Robinson taught for five years in Macon’s public school system before moving to Atlanta, Georgia, to earn her MA in English from Atlanta University. Following a year of study at Columbia University, she taught briefly at Mary Allen College in Crockett, Texas, before moving to Montgomery in 1949 to teach English at Alabama State College.
In Montgomery Robinson was active in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and the Women’s Political Council (WPC). In 1949 Robinson suffered a humiliating experience on a nearly empty public bus when the driver ordered her off for having sat in the fifth row. When she became WPC president in 1950, Robinson made the city’s segregated bus seating one of the top priorities of the organization. The WPC made repeated complaints about seating practices and driver conduct to the Montgomery City Commission. After the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Robinson informed the city’s mayor that a bus boycott might ensue if bus service did not improve, but negotiations had yielded little success by late 1955. After Rosa Parks’ arrest in December 1955, Robinson seized the opportunity to put the long-considered protest into motion. Late that night, she, two students, and John Cannon, chairman of the Business Department at Alabama State, mimeographed and distributed approximately 52,500 leaflets calling for a boycott of the buses.
As King and other civic and religious leaders established the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to oversee organization of the boycott, Robinson chose not to accept an official MIA position for fear of jeopardizing her job at Alabama State College. She was, however, named to the executive board because of her WPC position, and King personally asked her to write and edit the weekly MIA Newsletter.
Despite Robinson’s efforts to work behind the scenes, she was the target of several acts of intimidation. In February 1956 a local police officer threw a stone through her window. Two weeks later, a police officer poured acid on her car. Eventually, the governor ordered state police to guard the homes of boycott leaders.
Robinson took great pride in the eventual success of the boycott. In her memoir, Robinson wrote: “An oppressed but brave people, whose pride and dignity rose to the occasion, conquered fear, and faced whatever perils had to be confronted. The boycott was the most beautiful memory that all of us who participated will carry to our final resting place” (Robinson, 11).
Following the student sit-ins at Alabama State in early 1960, Robinson and other supporters of the students resigned their faculty positions rather than endure the tensions that Robinson called “a constant threat to our peace of mind” (Robinson, 169). After teaching for a year at Grambling College in Louisiana, Robinson moved to Los Angeles, where she taught until her retirement in 1976. Her memoir, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, was published in 1987.
King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.
Robinson, Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1987.