Women’s History Month is a reminder that in all major American social reform movements, women have always played a vital role. Women on the front lines, catalysts for progress when needed, make headlines and history books. But women also have still been the unseen, unseen but strong backbone of transforming social movements and all anchoring institutions of society – our families, congregations, schools and communities – employing essential leadership skills behind the scenes and organization, communication and fundraising to get things done.
Many people know that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first rose to national prominence as a civil rights leader by serving as a spokesperson in Montgomery, Alabama during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955- 1956. Not enough of us recognize that there would have been no bus boycott without a vigilant community catalyst working behind the scenes to find the right spark to challenge hated bus segregation. The December 1955 arrest of Mrs Rosa Parks, who refused to move from her seat at the front of the ‘colored’ section of her bus when the white section was too full, was not the first such arrest in Montgomery, but she made history. because she was the right public face who could mobilize the entire black community.
And behind that bus boycott was a community leader named Jo Ann Robinson who had the community infrastructure in place long before Rosa Parks was arrested and was ready to spring into action when the right opportunity arose. Next month will be the 110th anniversary of Jo Ann Robinson’s birth.
Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State College, was president of the Women’s Political Council (WPC), a group of black women civic leaders in Montgomery. She had been kicked off a city bus in 1949 for sitting too close to the front when the bus was almost empty. This infuriating experience was all too common among black residents of Montgomery, and the WPC had already chosen to make changing the bus system one of its priorities.
In a 1954 letter to the mayor of Montgomery, WA Gayle, they raised the possibility of a citywide bus boycott: Council, believe that when this matter has been brought before you and the commissioners, terms acceptable can be met quietly and without ostentation to the satisfaction of all parties concerned.
But when the women’s demands for “acceptable terms” went unanswered, their boycott plans were implemented. They just needed the right time, and when that time came, Jo Ann Robinson knew what to do.
She and other women did not wait for male leaders to decide on a response before acting. She later wrote of the night after Mrs. Parks’ arrest: “Some of the [Women’s Political Council] officers previously discussed plans to distribute thousands of notices announcing a bus boycott. Now the time had come for me to write such a review. She called her colleague John Cannon, chairman of the business department at Alabama State College, and two trusted students who immediately agreed to meet her at the college where Cannon had access to the photocopiers.
They worked together until four o’clock in the morning to make copies of the leaflet that Jo Ann Robinson had prepared: “Another black woman was arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up from her seat in the bus for a white person to sit. . … This must be stopped. Negroes also have rights, because if Negroes didn’t get on the buses, they couldn’t operate. Three quarters of the riders are Negroes, yet we are stopped or have to stand on empty seats. If we do nothing to stop these arrests, they will continue. Next time it might be you, your daughter or your mother. This woman’s case will arrive on Monday. So we ask every nigger not to take the buses on Monday to protest the arrest and trial. Don’t take the bus to work, town, school or anywhere on Mondays. You can afford to skip school for a day if you have no other way to get around than the bus. You can also afford to stay out of town for a day. If you work, take a taxi or walk. But please, children and adults, do not take the bus at all on Mondays.
She and her two students worked an extra three hours plotting distribution routes, and as soon as she finished teaching her 8 a.m. class that morning, Jo Ann Robinson began calling other members. of the WPC and to go around the city to meet them at strategic places. drop-off points with bundles of leaflets. She said: “By 2 p.m., thousands of mimeographed leaflets had changed hands several times. Virtually every black man, woman and child in Montgomery knew about the plan and spread the word. Nobody knew where the notices came from or who organized their distribution, and nobody cared. Those who transmitted them did so efficiently, discreetly and without comment. But deep in every black man’s heart was a joy he dared not reveal.
Under the direction of Jo Ann Robinson, over 50,000 flyers were produced and distributed that day. The boycott was a huge success, and as the one-day boycott became a year-long crusade, women remained its backbone. When a public spokesperson was needed in the early days of the boycott, Robinson, who was an active member of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, recommended his congregation’s new pastor, Martin Luther King Jr., 26, to run the new Montgomery Improvement. Association. The WPC continued to be instrumental in organizing the carpools that made the boycott possible. The women formed fundraising clubs to sell sweet potato pies and other baked goods and competed weekly to see which club could raise the most money to support the Montgomery Improvement Association. The federal lawsuit that was filed and successfully overturned bus segregation, Browder v. Gayle, had four black plaintiffs. Black women, aided by some prominent white women like Virginia Durr, were determined instruments of change.
Jo Ann Robinson continued to work behind the scenes but was known enough to become the target of violence: a policeman threw a stone through the window of her house and another poured acid on her car. That didn’t stop her. As Dr. King said, “Seemingly indefatigable, she, perhaps more than anyone else, was active at all levels of manifestation.”
During this time, the boycott she and other women started sparked a movement that changed our nation and the world. Jo Ann Robinson and other unsung heroines of the civil rights movement remain role models for the tireless and indispensable leaders whose strength and determination we desperately need right now.
Edelman is founder and chairman emeritus of the Children’s Defense Fund.