Why you should care
Because even history’s giants stand on the shoulders of countless others.
Welcome to The Thread, OZY’s chart-topping weekly podcast. In Season 3, The Thread charts how a revolutionary idea — nonviolent resistance — changed the course of history. Subscribe now to follow The Thread on Apple or on OZY.com.
Not all political or social revolutions start with the firing of shots, with a formal declaration, or even taking to the streets. Sometimes they start … with a strongly worded letter. On May 21, 1954 — four days after the U.S. Supreme Court announced its landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education declaring segregated schools unconstitutional — Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State College wrote such a letter to the mayor of Montgomery, Alabama.
On behalf of a civil rights group called the Women’s Political Council (WPC), Robinson politely but firmly demanded improved conditions for Black riders on the city’s buses, threatening a boycott if things did not improve. Pulitzer prize-winning historian David Garrow, author of Bearing the Cross, calls it “the most remarkable sheet of paper I had ever seen in some eight years of research on the civil rights movement.” A full year and a half after Robinson’s letter, a 42-year-old seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. In summing up the significance of that act of defiance, political activist and Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver said it was a moment in which “somewhere in the universe, a gear in the machinery shifted.”
When Parks was arrested, Robinson and the WPC sprang into action.
Parks’ courageous act may have shifted the gears of change in Montgomery — where Season 3 of OZY’s hit history podcast The Thread, about the history of nonviolence, begins — but it also represented the culmination of a much longer fight. A host of Black women like Jo Ann Gibson Robinson had been agitating in Montgomery long before Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and others took up their struggle and catapulted it into the history books. Montgomery may have launched the American civil rights movement, but these unheralded women launched Montgomery.
Why was it a group of Black women who kick-started things in Montgomery? In part it was because many had jobs as domestic servants and depended upon the buses more than the men in the community. Hence, they were the ones who had been subjected to the harshest treatment aboard the buses. “The all White bus drivers [in Montgomery] had a well-earned reputation for being almost all nasty racists,” says Garrow, and so for Black women, “the city bus system was a sort of necessary evil that was essential to daily life.”
It was a group of educated, middle-class women tied to the all-Black college Alabama State, like Robinson, that first started pushing back against this evil. Robinson, who died in 1992, joined the English department at Alabama State in 1949. Headed to the airport to catch a flight to see her family during her first Christmas vacation in Alabama, the 33-year-old boarded a bus with just two other passengers and took a seat close to the front. Suddenly, the driver was in her face, screaming, “Get up from there!” Shaken, she got off the bus.
Robinson soon learned she was hardly alone in enduring such behavior. “Almost daily some black man, woman, or child had had an unpleasant experience on the bus and told other members of the family about it at the supper table or around the open fireplace or stove,” Robinson writes in her memoir, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It. “These stories were repeated to neighbors, who retold them in club meetings or to the ministers of large church congregations.”
Robinson soon joined the WPC, a Black women’s civic group originally founded because the local League of Women Voters chapter had refused to integrate. And while school textbooks now have reduced the boycott to a single incident, as if God placed Rosa Parks alone in that bus seat and in the path of history, there were no shortage of women in the WPC and elsewhere in Montgomery who had stood up to injustice on the buses. One was Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old who became the first Black Montgomery resident to be arrested for challenging segregation on the city buses when she was pulled kicking and screaming from a bus nine months before Parks. Leaders in the civil rights community decided, however, that Colvin was too young (and later too pregnant) to be the face of any Montgomery boycott. Another was an 18-year-old domestic servant named Mary Louise Smith, who went to jail just six weeks before Parks for refusing to give up her seat to a White woman. Smith also was too young, and her father reportedly too fond of alcohol, to play the part.
When Parks was arrested on Dec. 1, 1955, Robinson and the WPC sprang into action. Community leaders had not yet formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and elected a young pastor, Martin Luther King Jr., as its president, and so the WPC’s early actions, including circulating flyers calling for a boycott on the night of Parks’ arrest, were critical to building momentum for the historic protest. Finally, after a community of more than 50,000 people had boycotted the city’s buses for over a year, Montgomery’s leaders realized the situation was untenable and agreed to the protesters’ demands. As Robinson had pointed out in her original letter to the city’s mayor: “Mayor … three-fourths of the riders of those public conveyances are Negroes. If Negroes did not patronize them, they could not possibly operate.”
Robinson was right: They couldn’t. But thanks to brave women like her, the universal machinery conveying social justice in Montgomery could.