During a recent event anticipating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday celebration, Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad evoked the name of Jo Ann Robinson. I had begun researching her life in preparation of this column, and it’s good to be on the same track with Muhammad, the former director of the Schomburg Center who now teaches at Harvard University.
Muhammad only mentioned Robinson in passing, but he noted her significance as a pioneering force in the Civil Rights Movement and here we offer at least an expansion on his intimations.
There is no more eminent endorsement of Robinson’s commitment than one from Dr. King, who had this to say about her in his autobiography. “…She, perhaps, more than any other person, was active on every level of the protest,” he wrote of her involvement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “She took part in both the executive board and the strategy committee meetings. When the MIA newsletter was inaugurated a few months after the protest began, she became its editor.
“She was sure to be present whenever negotiations were in progress,” King added. “And although she carried a full teaching load at Alabama State, she still found time to drive both morning and afternoon.”
But ferrying protesters was just one of the tasks in which Robinson was indefatigably in the vanguard. She was a principal organizer of the boycott and many years before had been pivotal in the founding and activism in the Women’s Political Council.
Born Jo Ann Gibson on April 17, 1912, in Culloden, Georgia, she was the twelfth child of Owen Boston Gibson and Dollie Webb Gibson, who were farmers. Her father died when she six, and her family relocated to Macon. She was a brilliant student in high school and was valedictorian of her graduating class. Later she would earn a bachelor’s degree from Fort Valley State College in 1934; she was the first in her family to earn a college degree.
After graduation from college, she would teach in the Macon public school system for the next five years. It was in Macon that she met her husband, Wilbur Robinson, according to historian David Garrow, who wrote the introduction to the memoir, but the marriage was very brief. Her classroom activities were not limited to teaching. She found time to earn a master’s degree from Atlanta University and to study English at Columbia University in New York City. Subsequently, she moved to Crocket, Texas where she taught at Mary Ellen College.
In 1949, she moved to Montgomery to teach at Alabama State College. Outside the classroom she became totally committed to community activism as a member of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. King had arrived to be the senior pastor. It was during her residence in Montgomery that she experienced her first real dose of discrimination. She was assailed for taking a seat in the white section of the bus and fled when the driver screamed at her. This began her determination to fight the systemic racism in her community, especially the segregated buses. She joined the Women’s Political Council, a group founded in 1946 to motivate African American women to become more actively involved in political action.
By 1950, Jo Ann was the president of the WPC, and made the desegregation of the buses one of the organization’s main objectives. In this capacity she was assisted by activist and attorney Fred Gray, and together they began meeting with the city’s mayor. When they were met with stern opposition on their plans to desegregate the bus system, Jo Ann began planning a boycott. “In 1953,” Jo Ann wrote in her memoir, “members of the WPC was confronted with some thirty complaints against the bus company, brought to it by black people in the community.”
Two years later, Mrs. Parks took a stand by keeping her seat, and following her arrest Jo Ann and her cohort leaped into the fray distributing flyers urging the Black citizens in Montgomery to boycott the buses that year. She and her associates distributed more than 50,000 flyers overnight. As the boycott gained momentum, the MIA, led by Dr. King, carried on the boycott and intensified the pressure.
For her insightful vision and tactical skills, Jo Ann was appointed to MIA’s board and as noted above assumed the editorial direction of the organization’s newsletter. Obviously, this leadership role placed her in the crosshairs of the community’s reactionaries and she was often arrested, and one police officer threw a rock through her window and poured acid on her car. Things got so bad for her that the state police were summoned to guard her home. It took more than a year for the boycott to achieve its mission and it also ushered Dr. King into the global spotlight. After the boycott was over, Jo Ann resigned from Alabama State College and moved to Grambling College in Louisiana, and then onto Los Angeles where she taught in the public school system.
In 1987, she published her memoir entitled “The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Woman Who Started It.” She died in Los Angeles on August 29, 1992.