Behind the Scenes for Civil Rights

Jo Ann Robinson was born in 1912 in Georgia to parents who were farmers. She was the 12th child born to her parents. Her father died when she was 6. Jo Ann was the valedictorian of her high school class and went on to earn a degree from Fort Valley State College.

After graduation, she became a teacher while earning a Master’s degree. She then taught in college and in 1949 moved to Montgomery, Alabama to teach at Alabama State College, an historic black college.

Like other African Americans, she had encountered problems with the city’s bus system. She was a member of the Woman’s Political Council (WPC), a group developed to lift up the lives of African Americans. When Jo Ann wanted to take action against the bus system, the WPC wouldn’t agree noting that the bus system was a fact of life in Montgomery.

When Jo Ann became President of the WPC, she was in a position to mobilize the WPC to take action. After city leaders turned her down, she organized a boycott.  At first the boycott was to be one day. The arrest of Rosa Parks became the triggering event. Overnight, Jo Ann and a colleague distributed 50,000 notices of the boycott.

The one-day boycott was a tremendous success and established the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) under the direction of Martin Luther King. Jo Ann didn’t join the MIA out of fear she would lose her job. But Jo Ann was active in the work of the MIA and the boycott.

Jo Ann became a target of those who were threatened by the MIA. She was arrested several times. Her house was stoned. Acid was poured on her car. Eventually the Governor ordered the state police to protect those who supported the boycott.

When a federal court ruled the buses be desegregated, the boycott ended. The success of the Montgomery bus boycott led to other acts of civil disobedience. And it led to the prominence of Martin Luther King.

Jo Ann resigned from her teaching position and moved to Los Angeles where she taught in the public schools. She continued to fight for the rights of women and African Americans. She passed away at the age of 80.

The civil rights movement is filled with a number of women hidden heroes who were overshadowed by males who were more out front in the leadership. One has to wonder how effective the civil rights movement would have been without these very talented women working behind the scenes.

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“Women’s leadership was no less important to the development of the Montgomery Bus Boycott than was the male and minister-dominated leadership.”  – Jo Ann Robinson

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