The Montgomery Bus Boycott And The Women Who Started It
Jo Ann Gibson Robinson isn’t a great writer, but she tells a great story, and one that’s invaluable to students of American history and social change.
Quite simply, there is no Montgomery Bus Boycott (and thus, among other things, no precipitating event that propels the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s rise to fame) without Jo Ann Robinson. Prof. Robinson wrote the famous leaflet that initiated the boycott, and—along with a colleague at Alabama State who had access to the college’s mimeograph equipment, and two students—produced 50,000 copies overnight and organized their distribution throughout Montgomery’s Negro community.
As president of the Women’s Political Council and an officer of the Montgomery Improvement Association, Robinson played a leading role throughout the boycott, and in the events leading up to it. Her story is packed with examples and lessons of how to create change when the odds are stacked against you. Here are some of them:
Know your own story: In December 1949 Robinson was “as happy as I had ever been in my life” (p. 16) when she boarded a bus to the airport to catch a flight from Montgomery to Cleveland to spend Christmas with family. When she inadvertently sat in the “whites only” section, the bus driver accosted her.
“I leaped to my feet, afraid he would hit me, and ran to the front door to get off the bus…. I stumbled off the bus and started walking back to the college. Tears blinded my vision; waves of humiliation inundated me; and I thanked God that none of my students was on that bus to witness the tragic experience. I could have died of embarrassment…. In all these years I have never forgotten the shame, the hurt, of that experience.” (p. 16)
Robinson carried that experience within her for the rest of her years in Montgomery. Repeatedly in The Montgomery Bus Boycott & The Women Who Started It she tells the stories of other Negro women and men who suffered similar humiliations or worse at the hands of bus drivers, white passengers, and police officers. Those experiences fueled her determination to do something about the segregated bus lines in Montgomery.
Exhaust all available options: By 1955 the Women’s Political Council was nearly a decade old, had three chapters (each with 100 members), and had spent countless hours working with E. D. Nixon’s Progressive Democratic Association, Rufus Lewis’ Citizens Steering Committee and local ministers to address the constant violation of civil rights to which Montgomery’s Negro citizens were subjected. This included documenting cases of abuse on the city buses, meeting with officials of the bus company and the city’s commissioners, and petitioning for what was known in the 18th century as “the redress of grievances“.
By the time of Mrs. Parks’ arrest, it was abundantly clear within Montgomery’s Negro community that every possible avenue for resolving the issue of the mistreatment of Negroes on city buses had been explored and exhausted. As a result, when the boycott was finally called for Dec. 5, 1955, it struck virtually every one of Montgomery’s 50,000 Black residents as a reasonable, nearly inevitable, next course of action.
Don’t fail to plan; Plan to succeed: Prof. Robinson recounts in great detail the “nuts and bolts” of organizing the bus boycott. For example:
“The Montgomery carpool of 1955 was one of the most effectively planned mass transportation systems in American history….
Each day some 325 private cars picked up passengers from 43 dispatch stations and 42 pickup stations. The dispatch stations were designated places where workers congregated in the early morning, beginning at 5 am, to be taken to work. From 5 am until 10 am, dozens of cars left these points every ten minutes for anywhere within the working radius of Montgomery. The dispatch stations included most of the Negro churches, all of the Negro funeral homes, several clubhouses, stores and…the eight Negro-operated service stations….
The forty-two pickup stations became active around 1 pm, when maids, cooks, nurses, and other domestic workers began getting off. From then until 8 pm this service continued….
The two key downtown pickup spots were a Negro-owned parking lot on McDonough Street and Dean’s Drugstore on Monroe. The parking lot belonged to a black woman whose family had owned property for years…. Dean’s was the business place of pharmacist Dr. Richard Harris, an ardent race man. The ancestors of both these owners had been early settlers who laid claim to the valuable sites, clearing and working them, when the city was first established.” (p. 91-92)
Similarly, Robinson provides information about how the weekly mass meetings were organized, how money was raised, and how committees were established, took on various responsibilities connected with the boycott, and worked together through the vehicle of the Montgomery Improvement Association.
Robinson’s famous May 21, 1954 letter to Mayor Gayle, informing him that “There has been talk from twenty-five or more local organizations of planning a city-wide boycott of busses” is reproduced prominently at the front of The Montgomery Bus Boycott. It is the most vivid example of how deeply and thoroughly she and other Black Montgomerians had prepared themselves to boycott the city bus lines.
Winning isn’t everything, but it’s better than losing: Prof. Robinson writes 161 pages to bring the reader to the conclusion of Dr. King’s trial and conviction on March 22, 1956 of violating the state’s anti-boycott law. That’s less than four months after the boycott started. She covers the remaining nine months of the boycott in less than two pages, before devoting 16 pages to the aftermath of the boycott.
Reading between the lines, the final 2/3 of the Montgomery bus boycott took on the atmosphere of a siege: black Montgomerians had successfully built an alternative transportation system and white Montgomerians refused to negotiate even a compromised version of integration. Both sides hunkered down and waited for the federal courts (ultimately, the Supreme Court in Browder v. Gayle) to resolve the issue. Here’s how Robinson describes what she calls “The Sober Victory”:
“At last, after thirteen long months, the boycotters had won. It was terrible to watch women and children weep, hearing the news, and even more awful to see grown black men stand and cry until their whole bodies shook with bitter memories of the past. For now it was all over—all those years of inhuman suffering, of brutality, arrests, and fines. The worst part of all had been their own helplessness in the face of it all! But now it was over.
The victory, however, brought no open festivities, no public rejoicing in the streets, no crowds milling on corners or around the leaders’ homes. Too many people had suffered too much to rejoice. Too many people had lost their jobs.”
A few years later, Robinson joined the ranks of those who lost their jobs for participating in the bus boycott. She and other Alabama State professors—some who had taught at the college for 30 years—who helped lead the boycott were investigated by a State House committee and forced out.
In the arena of social change, there is no great victory without great cost. There are the bright and shining moments of great cost—the mutilation of Emmett Till’s young body, the bombing of Dr. King’s house in the early weeks of the Montgomery bus boycott, the “disappearing” and murder of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner at the start of the Mississippi Freedom Summer.
But then there are the numberless costs that are largely forgotten by history—the people who lose their jobs, or don’t get a promotion; the marriages that fall apart because of the stresses of the struggle; the friendships and relationships ruptured or dimmed by the revelation of previously unimagined disagreements, even hatreds.
For black Montgomerians of the 1950s, the bus boycott revealed, among other things, how deeply many of their white fellow citizens hated them—enough to force them to walk or carpool to work for over a year (and pay for the “privilege”) rather than share a seat on the bus. How do you measure that cost? And for how long do you have to pay?
The Montgomery Bus Boycott is filled with ecstatic moments: that first morning when the buses rolled empty down the streets, the mass meetings attended by thousands of people, even the arrest of dozens of boycott leaders on conspiracy charges. However even someone as proud and enthusiastic as Prof. Robinson acknowledges the enormous toll the boycott exacted on its leaders and participants.
But she’d still do it all over again.