Robinson, Jo Ann (1911–1992)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Robinson, Jo Ann (1911–1992)

African-American who was a chief participant in the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955–56) that led to the desegregation of the bus system in Montgomery, Alabama, and sparked the civil-rights movement nationwide. Name variations: Jo Ann Gibson Robinson. Born Jo Ann Gibson on April 17, 1911, near Culloden, Georgia; died on August 29, 1992, in Los Angeles, California; graduated with a teaching degree from Fort Valley State College; Atlanta University, M.A. in English; married briefly to Wilbur Robinson; children: one who died in infancy.

Born on April 17, 1911, near Culloden, Georgia, in the segregated South, Jo Ann Robinson was the youngest of 12 children. She was educated in the segregated public schools of Macon and earned her teaching degree at Fort Valley State College. Robinson worked as a public school teacher in Macon for five years before moving to Atlanta, where she earned a master's degree in English from Atlanta University. She next spent a year teaching at Mary Allen College in Crockett, Texas, after which she took a position as a professor of English at Alabama State College in Montgomery in 1949.

Social unrest over segregationist policies was just beginning to ferment that year, and Robinson quickly became involved with two African-American groups that proved pivotal in the civil-rights struggles, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and the Women's Political Council (WPC), founded in 1946 by another professor at Alabama State, Mary Fair Burks . The WPC was comprised of professional women who worked in the areas of delinquency and voter registration to improve the status of African-Americans in the city. Robinson assumed the presidency of the organization in the 1950s.

Six years before Rosa Parks made history by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white rider, Robinson suffered abuse at the hands of a white bus driver, who yelled at her and threatened her for sitting in the front of a bus in December 1949. She and other middle-class black friends who had suffered similar indignities petitioned Montgomery officials to end the harassment, to no avail. The seed of what would become the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–56 was planted at that time. Robinson and her associates in the WPC began to look for an individual around whom they could build a bus boycott to force the desegregation of the Montgomery bus system. In May 1954, as the impact of the Supreme Court's recent decision in Brown v. Board of Education began sinking in across the nation, Robinson, as president of the WPC, sent a letter to the mayor of Montgomery noting that a bus boycott was an option if treatment of African-Americans in the transit system did not improve. Believing that the person who would serve as a rallying point for the African-American community must be of impeccable character, Robinson rejected the cases of two African-American women who had previously challenged seating on buses.

Robinson and other activists discovered their heroine in December 1955, when a Montgomery seamstress named Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to give up her seat towards the front of a city bus. Jo Ann Robinson quietly went to Alabama State College in the middle of the night to run

off thousands of fliers on the college's mimeograph machine, advocating a boycott that was originally intended to last only one day. As more African-American church and civic leaders took up the cause, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) came into existence to organize the effort, with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Abernathy taking lead roles. Robinson served on the executive board of the MIA and edited its newsletter. Although she kept a low profile in the boycott in order to avoid trouble with Alabama State College, Robinson was at the heart of activities throughout the 381-day protest. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated seating was unconstitutional on November 13, 1956. On December 20, the court's order was served on Montgomery officials, and the boycott ended.

The protest precipitated Robinson's departure from Alabama State College, along with that of 11 other activists. She taught for one year at Grambling College in Grambling, Louisiana, then moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as an English teacher in the public school system until her retirement in 1976. She stayed involved in women's community groups until her health declined seriously shortly after the publication of her memoir, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, in 1987. The Southern Association for Women Historians honored Robinson with a publication prize in 1989, but she was too ill to accept the award in person. She died in 1992.


Crawford, Vicki, Jacqueline Anne Rouse and Barbara Woods, eds. Women in the Civil Rights Movement:Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941–1965. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Griffin, Lynne, and Kelly McCann. The Book of Women: 300 Notable Women History Passed By. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1992.

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

"I'm not going to ride the bus," in U.S. News & World Report. December 11, 1995, pp. 52, 54.

suggested reading:

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

related media:

"Boycott," starring Jeffrey Wright, Terrence Howard, CCH Pounder as Jo Ann Robinson, and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King , directed by Clark Johnson, first aired on HBO on February 24, 2001.

Jane E. Spear , freelance writer and editor, Canton, Ohio