The Invisible Backbone Leaders of Transforming Social Change

Women’s History Month is a reminder that in every major American social reform movement, women have always played a critical role. Women at the forefront, acting as the catalyst for progress when it needs to happen, make the front pages and the history books. But women have also always been the invisible backbone, unseen but strong, of transforming social movements and of all anchor institutions in society—our families, congregations, schools, and communities—employing behind the scenes quiet essential leadership and organizational, communication, and fundraising skills to get things done.

Many people know Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. first rose to national prominence as a civil rights leader by serving as a spokesperson in Montgomery, Alabama during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956. Not enough of us recognize that there would not have been a bus boycott without a vigilant community catalyst working behind the scenes looking for the right spark to challenge hated bus segregation. The December 1955 arrest of Mrs. Rosa Parks, who refused to move from her seat at the front of the “colored” section of her bus when the white section got too full, was not the first such arrest in Montgomery, but it made history because she was the right public face that could mobilize the entire Black community. And behind that bus boycott was a community leader named Jo Ann Robinson who had been putting the community infrastructure in place long before Rosa Parks was arrested and was ready to spring into action when the right opportunity arose. Next month will be the 110th anniversary of Jo Ann Robinson’s birth.

Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State College, was president of the Women’s Political Council (WPC), a group of Black women civic leaders in Montgomery. She had been thrown off a city bus in 1949 for sitting too close to the front although the bus was nearly empty. This infuriating experience was all too common among Montgomery’s Black residents, and the WPC had already chosen to make changing the bus system one of their priorities. In a 1954 letter to Montgomery mayor W.A. Gayle they raised the possibility of a city-wide bus boycott: “More and more of our people are already arranging with neighbors and friends to ride to keep from being insulted and humiliated by bus drivers . . . We, the Council, believe that when this matter has been put before you and the Commissioners, that agreeable terms can be met in a quiet and unostensible manner to the satisfaction of all concerned.” But when the women’s requests for “agreeable terms” went unanswered, their plans for a boycott went forward. They just needed the right moment, and when that moment came Jo Ann Robinson knew what to do.

She and other women did not wait for male leaders to decide on a response before acting. She later wrote about the night after Mrs. Parks was arrested: “Some of the [Women’s Political Council] officers previously had discussed plans for distributing thousands of notices announcing a bus boycott. Now the time had come for me to write just such a notice.” She called her colleague John Cannon, chair of Alabama State College’s business department, and two trusted students who immediately agreed to meet her at the college where Cannon had access to the copying machines. They worked together until four in the morning making copies of the leaflet Jo Ann Robinson had prepared: “Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down . . . This has to be stopped. Negroes have rights, too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negroes, yet we are arrested, or have to stand over empty seats. If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or mother. This woman’s case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. You can afford to stay out of school for one day if you have no other way to go except by bus. You can also afford to stay out of town for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday.”

She and her two students worked for three more hours mapping out distribution routes, and as soon as she finished teaching her 8 o’clock class that morning Jo Ann Robinson began calling other members of the WPC and driving around the city to meet them at strategic drop-off locations with bundles of leaflets. She said: “By 2 o’clock, thousands of the mimeographed handbills had changed hands many times. Practically every black man, woman, and child in Montgomery knew the plan and was passing the word along. No one knew where the notices had come from or who had arranged for their circulation, and no one cared. Those who passed them on did so efficiently, quietly, and without comment. But deep within the heart of every black person was a joy he or she dared not reveal.”

Under Jo Ann Robinson’s direction, more than 50,000 leaflets were produced and distributed that day. The boycott was an enormous success, and as the day-long boycott became a year-long crusade, women remained its backbone. When a public spokesperson was needed at the very start of the boycott, Robinson, who was an active member of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, recommended her congregation’s new 26-year-old pastor Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead the newly-formed Montgomery Improvement Association. The WPC continued to be instrumental in organizing the carpools that made the boycott possible. Women formed fundraising clubs to sell sweet potato pies and other baked goods and competed every week to see which club could earn the most money to support the Montgomery Improvement Association. The federal lawsuit that was filed and successfully struck down bus segregation, Browder v. Gayle, had four Black women plaintiffs. Black women, aided by some prominent white women like Virginia Durr, were the determined instruments of change.

Jo Ann Robinson continued to work behind the scenes but was known well enough to become a target of violence: one police officer threw a rock through her home’s window and another poured acid on her car. That did not stop her. As Dr. King put it, “Apparently indefatigable, she, perhaps more than any other person, was active on every level of the protest.” Meanwhile the boycott she and other women began sparked a movement that changed our nation and world. Jo Ann Robinson and other unsung heroines of the civil rights movement remain role models for the tireless indispensable leaders whose strength and determination we desperately need right now.