Although not as well-known as Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, Jr., Jo Ann Robinson (1912-1992) was perhaps the individual most instrumental in planning and publicizing the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, proposing the idea more than a year before it was implemented. Robinson was also active in the Montgomery Improvement Association and the Women’s Political Council and was an English professor at Alabama State College (ASC, now Alabama State University).
Jo Ann Robinson Jo Ann Gibson was born on April 17, 1912, in Culloden, Georgia, the youngest of 12 children of Owen Boston Gibson and Dollie Webb Gibson. Unusually well-educated at a time when educational opportunities for African American women were limited, Gibson was valedictorian of her high school graduating class and became the first person in her family to graduate from college, earning a bachelor’s degree from Fort Valley State College (now Fort Valley State University) in Fort Valley, Georgia. Robinson then took a teaching position in Macon, Georgia. While there, she was married for a short time to Wilbur Robinson and had one child who died in infancy, prompting her to end the marriage. After teaching for five years in the Macon public school system, Robinson earned a master’s degree in English from Atlanta University (now Clark-Atlanta University) and later completed a year of doctoral study in English at Columbia University in New York City. In 1949, Robinson accepted a teaching position in the English Department at Alabama State College, and moved to Montgomery, where she joined Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, later pastored by Martin Luther King Jr. At ASC, Robinson befriended professor Mary Fair Burks, who had founded the Women’s Political Council (WPC) in 1946 to inspire African American women to become more politically active.
Robinson’s awakening to the realities of racial segregation occurred in 1949, at the end of her first semester at ASC. Preparing to leave Montgomery for Christmas vacation, Robinson boarded a city bus carrying only two other passengers and sat in a section reserved for whites. Lost in thought, Robinson was startled to find that the driver had stopped the bus and was standing over her, yelling at her to get up from her seat. She left the bus in tears. Robinson had shown little interest in the WPC prior to her ill treatment on the bus. When she returned to Montgomery and discussed the event with other WPC members, however, she was shocked to find that they considered the incident unremarkable and commonplace in segregated Montgomery. In response, Robinson resolved to improve the treatment of African Americans in Montgomery. She met with attorney Fred Gray, who was also eager to challenge the city’s segregated bus system. As she came to know Gray and his wife, Bernice, Robinson began to think more about ending segregation in Montgomery. Robinson became president of the WPC in 1950 and began urging women of the organization into more activist roles.
In the early 1950s, Robinson and other members of the WPC met with Montgomery mayor William A. Gayle and several of his staff. The WPC members found the mayor and his staff responsive to their request for dialogue on various issues affecting African Americans in Montgomery until the subject of integrating the buses arose. Robinson and others wanted drivers to be more courteous, to stop more frequently in black neighborhoods, to allow blacks to pay and board the bus at the front, and to reserve more seats for black patrons. With little cooperation from the mayor’s office, and few African Americans able to vote in the city, Robinson came to envision a boycott by the city’s many African Americans, which would severely affect the bus company’s finances and perhaps prompt integration.
After Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, Robinson and others saw their opportunity to take action. She authored the text of a flyer calling for African Americans to boycott city buses, and she and friend John Cannon, who was chair of the Business Department at ASC, in addition to two of her students, mimeographed thousands of flyers calling for a one-day boycott to start the following Monday, December 5, and distributed them throughout the city.
The success of the boycott convinced local civil rights leaders that it should continue until conditions improved, and that evening local civil rights leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to oversee the boycott, with Martin Luther King serving as its president. Robinson did not take an official position in the MIA for fear that doing so would endanger her job. She was, however, appointed to the executive board and, at the behest of King, wrote and edited the weekly MIA newsletter. She also participated in the carpool system that made the boycott possible.
Despite Robinson’s efforts to maintain a discreet role in the boycott and the MIA, she was arrested as one of the boycott’s leaders (but never stood trial) and targeted with violence. In early 1956, a police officer threw a rock through her window, and shortly afterwards, acid was poured on her car. In the late 1950s, Robinson and other instructors at ASC who were rumored to have participated in the boycott were reportedly investigated by a special state committee, and state evaluators routinely attended classes and observed instructors to intimidate faculty. In 1960, when ASC students staged a sit-in at a segregated snack bar downtown, Robinson resigned her position rather than face the continued tensions at the institution, later accepting a position at Grambling College (now Grambling State University) in Grambling, Louisiana. After teaching there for a year, she moved to Los Angeles and worked in the public school system until her retirement in 1976. In 1987, Robinson’s memoir, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, was published by the University of Tennessee Press. She remained actively involved in her community and in local politics until her death on August 29, 1992.
Robinson, Jo Ann Gibson. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson. Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.
Walker, Robert J. Let My People Go! Lanham, Md.: Hamilton Books, 2007.
Williams, Donnie, and Wayne Greenhaw. The Thunder of Angels: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the People Who Broke the Back of Jim Crow. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2006.