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Gender in Civil Rights Movement: Desegregation

Jo Ann Robinson and the Women's Political Council

During the Christmas holiday in 1949, Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at an all-black college in Alabama, boarded a bus headed to the airport for a trip home to Ohio. Late for her flight and loaded down with gifts for family, she took a seat just behind the driver in the nearly empty bus. The driver yelled, "GET UP FROM THERE," rose from his seat, and threatened to strike her. Frightened and angry, Robinson took her things and left the bus.

This was not the first time a white bus driver had raised a hand to a black female passenger. In fact, Robinson was aware of dozens of similar episodes. As a founding member of the Women's Political Council (WPC), a group of professional black women committed to informing the community of injustices, she documented instances in which black people riding city buses had been denied a bus transfer, forced to pay extra fare, or were verbally abused, assaulted, or arrested. Robinson and women of the Council kept track of court trials and fines paid by working men and women who violated local segregation laws. In Montgomery, Alabama, the WPC informed the community of each case, distributing handbills with detailed accounts of the events.

The Right Moment, the Right Person

Robinson's humiliating ordeal in 1949 further emboldened the group to seek some new plan of action, one that would be much more than informative. The WPC was quite aware of the fact that the vast majority of passengers on the city lines were African-American, and predominantly women. They felt that these facts might be the key to a successful and far-reaching bus boycott. In a letter to Montgomery's mayor, W. A. Gayle, Robinson wrote, "Mayor Gayle, three quarters of the riders of these public conveyances are Negroes." She informed him of the stakes, for "If Negroes did not patronize [the buses] they could not possibly operate."

But Robinson and the WPC understood that it would be difficult to rally the black citizens of Alabama to risk harassment, injury, and the loss of work in protest of something that many considered simply a fact of life. They needed the right moment and the right person to represent the issue and inspire the community to take action. With the help of the NAACP, the group selected Rosa Parks, a respectable, strong-willed woman who on the first day of December 1955, was arrested for disobeying a bus driver's orders to rise to allow a white man to sit. Parks, like many other black citizens, had resisted these kinds of demands several times before, but this time, her act would become the rallying cry for thousands of protesters.

Strength in Numbers

With Parks's trial approaching, the WPC urged Jo Ann Robinson to notify the community and initiate the boycott. Robinson stayed up all night making 35,000 copies of a handbill to be distributed not only to men and women, but to school children so that they would take it home to their parents. "This is for Monday, Dec. 5, 1955—Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown into jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus and give it to a white person... This has to be stopped," the handbill announced. "We are ... asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don't ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday."

The Women's Political Council planned a one-day strike, but knew that if enough people participated, it could be extended as long as it might be necessary to convince city, state, or even federal officials to desegregate the buses. The WPC allowed the NAACP and other black leaders to decide whether the Monday boycott had been successful and, if so, how long it should continue. Ultimately more than 50,000 people—women and men, mostly black, but some white citizens, as well—participated in the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott. The massive demonstration of courage and perseverance captured the attention of the Supreme Court, which in December 1956 struck down Alabama's segregation laws.

Forgotten Leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott

The Montgomery Bus Boycott has been remembered as a spontaneous act sparked by Rosa Parks, "the seamstress with tired feet," who in December of 1955 refused to relinquish her seat on a segregated city bus. But, in reality, the boycott was neither spontaneous nor ignited by a single act of defiance. Black students and working men and women who depended upon public transportation had been defending themselves against treatment they deemed unfair for at least a decade prior to the famous Parks confrontation. Under the leadership of an organization of African-American women, the black community had prepared for the fight long before Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other black leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association decided to extend the strike beyond its monumental first day. Jo Ann Robinson and the Women's Political Council conceived of, initiated, and provided much of the drive for one of the most significant and effective boycotts in American history.

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