Robinson, Jo Ann Gibson

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Robinson, Jo Ann Gibson

April 17, 1912
August 29, 1992

Teacher and civil rights leader Jo Ann Gibson Robinson was at the forefront of the movement to desegregate public transportation and a leader of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, in which over fifty thousand African Americans participated. Born in Culloden, Georgia, the youngest of twelve children, Gibson attended Macon public schools before entering Fort Valley State College. She taught in Macon schools for five years, then went to Atlanta University, where she received a master's degree in English in 1948. One year later, Robinson accepted a position as a member of the English department at Alabama State College in Montgomery.

Shortly after moving to Montgomery, Robinson joined the Women's Political Council (WPC), an organization of mostly middle-class black women. The WPC was founded in 1946 by Mary Fair Burks, an English professor at Alabama State, to increase the black community's involvement in civic affairs by promoting voter registration and teaching high school students about politics and government. In 1950 Robinson became president of the WPC, and under her leadership the organization grew to over two hundred members and began to challenge the demeaning form of segregation on the city's buses. The WPC lobbied the city in the early 1950s to revise its seating policy so black passengers would not have to give up their seats for whites or stand over an empty seat reserved for a white rider. In May 1954 Robinson wrote a letter to Montgomery's Mayor W. A. Gayle threatening a boycott unless reforms were forthcoming.

After Claudette Colvin, a young black teenager, was arrested in March 1955 for violating a segregation law, Robinson and other black leaders negotiated with the city commissioner about changing the city's seating policy. The meetings yielded very little, and Robinson supported launching a boycott, but other black leaders opposed the idea. When Rosa Parks, secretary of a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was arrested on December 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her seat for a white man on the bus, members of the WPC were prepared for a boycott. After speaking with Parks and E. D. Nixon, former chair of the NAACP in Alabama, they made a flier calling for a boycott the following Monday. Putting her job on the line, Robinson mimeographed fifty thousand copies late one night at Alabama State and, with help from two of her students, distributed them within forty-eight hours of Parks's arrest. The WPC also planned a mass meeting at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church for the afternoon of the boycott, at which time it was decided to continue the boycott indefinitely. It was primarily because of the previous five years of political groundwork laid by women in the WPC, under the direction of Robinson, that the black community in Montgomery was prepared to endure a boycott that lasted over a year.

Although men were the most visible leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the organization created to coordinate the boycott, women played important roles. Robinson, in particular, was an influential political strategist and an indispensable contributor to the movement. She wielded political power on the executive board of the MIA; served as an important negotiator with the city; produced the MIA newsletter, which not only provided support and encouragement for boycotters but kept people around the country informed about the progress of the protest; and volunteered time in the car pool to help the thousands of ordinary participants get to work on time. In December 1956 a court order desegregating public transportation ended the boycott. Although the importance of the WPC began to diminish, it nevertheless continued to exist for several years.

Robinson left Alabama State College in 1960 after several teachers had been fired for their participation in the boycott. She taught for one year at Grambling State College in Grambling, Louisiana, then moved to Los Angeles, where she taught English in the public schools until 1976, when she retired. After retiring, Robinson remained active in a host of civic and social groups, giving one day a week of free service to the city of Los Angeles and serving in the League of Women Voters, the Alpha Gamma Omega chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the Angel City chapter of the Links, the Black Women's Alliance, the Founders Church of Religious Science, and Women on Target. In 1987 Robinson published her memoir about the boycott, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, which won the publication prize by the Southern Association for Women's Historians. Through her historical work, Robinson helped restore women to their proper place in the Montgomery boycott, and through her political commitment, she helped launch one of the most important civil rights struggles in the Jim Crow South. Robinson died in 1992 at age eighty.

See also Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Montgomery Improvement Association; Montgomery, Ala., Bus Boycott


Burks, Mary Fair. "Trailblazers: Women in the Montgomery Bus Boycott." In Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 194165, edited by Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1990.

Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Brooklyn, N.Y: Carlson, 1993.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Stride Toward Freedom. New York: Harper, 1958.

Robinson, Jo Ann. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Robinson. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.

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Updated by publisher 2005

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