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Jo Ann Robinson

As president in the early 1950s of the Women's Political Council (WPC) of Montgomery, Alabama, Jo Ann Robinson was one of several crucial initiators of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56. Robinson was an influential and leading figure both during the two years of Black civic activism leading up to the boycott and as a major player in the significant events that transformed the arrest of Rosa Parks into a communitywide protest movement.

Jo Ann Gibson was born near Culloden, Georgia, on April 17, 1912, the youngest of twelve children. Educated in the segregated public schools of Macon and then at Fort Valley State College, she became a public school teacher in Macon, where she was briefly married to Wilbur Robinson. After their one child died in infancy, Robinson left Macon after five years of teaching and went to Atlanta, where she earned an M.A. in English at Atlanta University. In the fall of 1949, after teaching one year at Mary Allen College in Crockett, Texas, Robinson accepted a position at Alabama State College. She was a professor of English at Alabama State throughout the boycott.

In Montgomery she joined both the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and the WPC, which had been founded three years earlier by another Alabama State English professor, Mary Fair Burks. At Christmastime in 1949, Robinson endured a deeply humiliating experience at the hands of an abusive and racist Montgomery City Lines bus driver, and she resolved then and there that the WPC would target racial seating practices on Montgomery buses. Many other Black citizens had had similar experiences, and for the next several years the WPC repeatedly asked city authorities to improve racial seating practices and address the conduct of abusive bus drivers. In May 1954, more than eighteen months before the arrest of Rosa Parks but just several days after news of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision began to sweep the country, Robinson wrote to Montgomery's mayor as WPC president, gently threatening a Black boycott of city buses if abuses were not curtailed.

Following Rosa Parks' arrest in December 1955, Robinson played a central role in beginning the protest by immediately producing the leaflets that spread word of the hoped-for boycott among the Black citizens of Montgomery (see copy of leaflet originally distributed by the Women's Political Council). She became one of the most active board members of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the new Black community group created to lead the boycott, but she remained out of the limelight in order to protect her teaching position at Alabama State as well as those of her colleagues. In 1960, Robinson left Alabama State (and Montgomery), as did other activist faculty members.

After teaching one year at Grambling College in Grambling, Louisiana, Robinson moved to Los Angeles, where she taught English in the public schools until her retirement in 1976 and where she was active in a number of women's community groups. Robinson's health suffered a serious decline just as her memoir, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, was published in 1987. She was honored by a 1989 publication prize given by the Southern Association for Women Historians, but was unable to accept the award in person.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Burks, Mary Fair. "Trailblazers: Women in the Montgomery Bus Boycott." In Women in the Civil Rights Movement, ed. Vicki L. Crawford et al. (1990); Garrow, David J., ed. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (1987), and The Walking City (1989).

SOURCE

Black Women in America. An Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Darlene Clark Hine

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