The Women’s Political Council (WPC) of Montgomery, Alabama, was established in 1949 by Mary Fair Burks to inspire African Americans to “live above mediocrity, to elevate their thinking … and in general to improve their status as a group” (Robinson, 23). The WPC sought to increase the political leverage of the black community by promoting civic involvement, increasing voter registration, and lobbying city officials to address racist policies. The group’s work expanded to include public protest in 1955, when it helped initiate the Montgomery bus boycott, the event that brought Martin Luther King and the civil rights struggle into the national spotlight.
The original WPC chapter was made up of middle class professionals, most of whom were educators and taught at the all-black Alabama State College or in the city’s public schools. Burks, who was head of Alabama State’s English Department, served as initial WPC president, then was succeeded by Jo Ann Robinson. By 1955 the WPC counted over 200 members in three neighborhood chapters.
The WPC had been planning for a citywide boycott of buses long before the historic boycott of 1955. In 1953 the WPC approached Montgomery city commissioners about unfair practices, such as having African Americans enter through the back of the bus after paying their fare up front. On 21 May 1954 Robinson sent a letter suggesting a city law, much like the one already implemented in other cities, in which black passengers would be seated from back to front and white passengers seated from front to back, until all seats were filled. The WPC’s concerns were consistently dismissed by city commissioners, even following Robinson’s statement that “even now plans are being made to ride less, or not at all, on our buses” (Robinson, 21 May 1954). After the March 1955 arrest of Claudette Colvin for refusing to give up her seat, King, Rufus Lewis, E. D. Nixon, Robinson, Irene West, and Burks met with the city commissioners but made little headway.
On 1 December 1955, the arrest of Rosa Parks gave the WPC the opportunity it had been waiting for. After Nixon, with the help of Virginia and Clifford Durr, gained Parks’ release from jail and secured her approval to use her arrest as a test case to challenge bus seating policies, Nixon called King and other black leaders to inform them of the effort, already under way, to boycott Montgomery’s buses. By this time Robinson and the WPC had already drafted, mimeographed, and begun circulating leaflets across the city, announcing the boycott. Throughout the boycott the WPC engaged in the daily activities of driving in the carpools, organizing mass meetings, and communicating with protesters.
Burks later stated that “members of the Women’s Political Council were trailblazers” and credited the WPC for its ability “to arouse black middle-class women to do something about the things they could change in segregated Montgomery” (Burks, “Trailblazers,” 76). Their role in the boycott, however, was not without consequences. Many WPC members were also teachers at Alabama State College, where officials closely investigated everyone involved in the boycott and in other student demonstrations. Tensions on the campus, especially after the sit-ins of 1960, caused many of the women, including Robinson and Burks, to resign from the college and find employment elsewhere, an event that dispersed key members throughout the nation.