The profound success of the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 was a marvel to behold. Top tier organizing and galvanizing skills were required to bring it into fruition. In today’s world, It would have required a social media post that went viral to reach over 50,000 people. So who was responsible? The hidden hand, named Jo Anne Robinson, was privy to both the long history of abuse reported on city buses, and, had access to machinery to mimeograph the message to get word out about the protest to the masses.
Perhaps you didn’t expect that… Breathe in, breathe out.
This answer may surprise you as it is not the personalities we’ve been accustomed to hearing about like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Attorney Fred D. Gray, or E. D. Nixon. Of course, they played an integral part in carrying out plans, however, Robinson was the chief architect behind the scenes. This post will chronicle a timeline of events seven years prior to the boycott. I will share details as thoroughly discussed in Wally G. Vaughn’s treatise, “The Montgomery Bus Protests 1955-1956, Strategic Planning of the Highest Order.” I will also share some other titles central to understanding the personalities and planning that went into the Boycott.
Books on the Montgomery Bus Boycott
Monday, December 3, 1955 kicked off the first day of this momentous event which strategically coincided with the court date of Mrs. Rosa Parks, a 47 year old NAACP secretary. Parks was arrested 2 days prior for refusing to give up her seat to a white rider on a Montgomery city bus. Black people decided en masse to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the treatment received on the buses after learning about the incident that resonated in many cases with their own. But how did news of her arrest catch a fire so quickly? After all, three other women arrested for similar reasons didn’t gain as much traction. Park’s arrest and subsequent protest seemed to do so as if under spontaneous combustion.
But this was far from the case… Let’s back up and take a closer look.
The mistreatment on Montgomery city buses included:
These grievances were explained in a letter dated May 21, 1954 to Mayor Gayle of Montgomery Alabama by the Women’s Political Council (WPC). This occurred more than one year prior to the bus boycott. The WPC was started in 1949 by Mary Fair Burks who was traumatized after an arrest in the city. She called on 50 of her friends she felt likely shared some of the same racial abuse and indignities she’d suffered. The organization collected and logged reports of racial abuse. Burks was a member of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church led by the oratory power and unapologetic message of Black independence of Vernon Johns. In his groundbreaking book, “Montgomery Bus Protests” Vaughn details a compelling account of how the Black economic education given by Johns mixed with the action oriented offenses originated by the WPC provided the spark that lit a fire to the movement. The star intellectual quarterback, Jo Anne Robinson was being primed by her experiences and expertise to be the initiator of this masterfully crafted plan.
TIMELINE OF EVENTS LEADING TO THE MONTGOMERY BUS BOYCOTT
1948 - Vernon Johns installed as pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL
1949 (Spring) - Women’s Political Council (WPC) formed by Mary Fair Burks, member of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church who was traumatized after an arrest.
1949 (Summer) Jo Anne Robinson arrived in Montgomery to teach at Alabama State College. She boarded a city bus and inadvertently sat in the “white” section. She was verbally abused by the white driver. She was a member of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
1950 Jo Anne Robinson, president of WPC
1950 - (August) Johns’ preached a sermon that was a scathing commentary of abuse suffered by Blacks called, “Is it Safe to Kill Negroes”
1953 - Johns forced to resign
1954 - (May) Letter sent to Montgomery Mayor W. A. Gayle from WPC about mistreatment of Blacks and mentioned that dozens of organizations were prepared to stay off buses as a result. Jo Anne Robinson was president of WPC at the time.
1954 - (October) Martin Luther King Jr. installed as pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church at age 25
1955 - (March) Claudette Colvin, teenager, arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. Though leaders wanted to take her case to the Supreme Court, they backed out after learning that she was pregnant and felt this would distract too much from the evidence at hand.
1955 - (April) Arelia Browder arrested after refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus. Leaders were notified of the case weeks after the arrest and arraignment.
1955 - (October) Mary Louise Smith jailed for not moving to rear of bus to the Black section. Leaders were notified of the case weeks after the arrest and arraignment.
1955 - (Dec 1) 6:06pm, Rosa Parks, 47 years old, arrested after refusing to give up her seat though she was seated in the Black section.
1955 - (Dec. 1) E. D. Nixon Bails Rosa Parks out of jail. Jo Anne Robinson meets with Parks at her home.
1955 - (Dec 2-4) 50,000 pamphlets distributed across town urging Blacks to stay off buses.
Dec. 2 - evening About 75 Leaders gathered to discuss the proposed protest.
Dec. 3 - 7,000 revised leaflets were circulated that mentioned a follow up meeting would occur Holt Street Baptist Church for further instruction. Martin Luther King Jr primed for leadership of a newly formed organization to function as spokesperson.
Dec. 4 - “Montgomery Advertiser” prints a front page story that called the protest a “boycott.”
Dec. 5 - Parks found guilty of charges. Tens of thousands of Blacks walked or carpooled to work. Holt church introduced the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr as president.
And the rest is history… and outside of the scope of this blog.
June 5, 1956, the court ruled in Browder v. Gayle (1956) that Alabama's racial segregation laws for buses were unconstitutional. The state appealed and the boycott continued.
November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court upheld the district court's ruling.
Dec. 5th marked the beginning of this momentous boycott that touched the hearts and minds of the masses. It was a long time in the making and authorities were given many opportunities to ease tensions but failed to do so on every occasion citing that the law was the law. Robinson’s close proximity to the communities’ complaints and response by authorities led her to create a foolproof plan that implied that Parks was chosen ahead of time to force an arrest so that leadership could respond effectively and galvanize the people. Two other cases already proved that leaving the arrest to chance didn’t allow for the community to be alerted to effective action. This was brilliance at its best.
Jo Anne Robinson identity kept hidden
Robinson’s identification as the architect of the boycott was intentionally hidden to protect her job position as a teacher at Alabama State College. In an excerpt from Vaughn’s book:
"Abernathy said that after it was learned that Robinson was the author of the pamphlets and the master-mind behind the proposed one day protest, he and King knew she had to be protected because she was a teacher at Alabama State College and her actions could easily lead to her termination or worse, so her authorship of the pamphlets was kept secret. From this point onward, secrecy was a dominant theme.” - “The Walls Came Tumbling Down” by Ralph Abernathy as referenced in Vaughn’s The Montgomery Bus Protest’ book.
Upon first reading of these details my jaw dropped as I hadn’t heard Robinson’s name before. I wondered why this would be kept under wraps. After learning that it was of necessity, I grew in respect and admiration for all of the personalities involved. I grew in pride in the communities’ organizational abilities and extreme risks undertaken for our personal freedoms.
Vaughn’s book gives hard evidence that it was impossible to have gotten the word of the protest out through 50,000 flyers as reported by Robinson herself in the timeframe allotted. Vaughn cites the mechanical limitations of the dated equipment and hours needed to complete the task. He used sources familiar with mimeographing machines, and pointed out that the number of revised leaflets produced in the same timeframe given were a fraction of the ones allegedly produced on Dec. 3. I marveled at this author's detective work required to investigate what may seem a minor detail in exposing a major gap in the feasibility of the arguments presented by organizers to protect the innocent (in my eyes). This excerpt is revealing:
“The volume of work said to have been accomplished with three people following the arrest of Rosa Parks in the time ascribed was impossible; even ten untrained individuals could not have pulled it off in the time stated.” -W. Vaughn, The Montgomery Bus Protests
There is also a footnoted quote by Claressa W. Chambliss who is the owner of a beauty salon that was one of the sites Robinson used to discuss her strategic plans. Chambliss said, “Ms. Parks didn’t just (emphasized) end up on that bus.” In other words, it was a planned event that was required for best success. Planned and orchestrated by Jo Anne Robinson. Robinson saw that otherwise, too much time would have lapsed between the arrest and the galvanization of the community needed to bring attention and exposure to it . She observed that for the other three women arrested previously (Colvin, Browder, Smith) too much was left outside of her purview. A future arrest would require:
I was also impressed that a woman other than Parks was at the forefront of the planning. This adds to what we’ve already learned about the bravery and strength of Rosa Parks. In fact, it is mentioned in the book that Parks’ husband repeatedly warned, “those white folks will kill you.” Knowing all she did prior to Parks’ arrest, she decided to go forth anyway. It was absolutely not a spur of the moment decision. It was well thought out, she weighed the consequences carefully. It took a woman of strong and unshakable convictions that drew from a wellspring larger than anyone is capable of measuring.
Knowing the importance of hiding the true force behind the idea makes all of the personalities in close proximity to Robinson heroes in their own right. Any missteps could have easily worked against a favorable outcome. Time and tide was on our side and the countless Blacks who sacrificed the “convenience” of the bus for dignity speaks volumes of our rock solid wall of strength we possess as a people.
Documentary "The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks " Released | Peacock Original
On October 19th, 2022, Peacock released, "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks" which is based on the biography of the same name. The author is Jeanne Theoharis and executive produced by Soledad O'Brien. I was pleased to see that there is another book posthumously released by Rosa Parks with Gregory Reed one month after the release of the documentary. I like to always encourage those who wish to delve more closely to historical context from the primary source's perspective, to READ THEIR OWN WORDS. Parks lived it, and has earned the right to be heard for the years to come.
Though I have not seen the documentary yet, I was drawn to the book it was based on being a part of a series called, "revisioning history." I do hope it is not a part of "revisionist" history. "Re-envisioning" may have been a better word choice given the other baggage that has accompanied "revisionist" history. Sigh, there's always more work to do regarding preserving our history. When I see the movie, I will update this post with my thoughts.
As always, I appreciate that you have read through this blog post. I hope that you’ve become curious to read more books about the great strategic planning behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott. We ask that you consider purchasing your books from our Black owned bookstore, Afriware Books, Co. If there is a title you’d like to purchase that is not mentioned here, or could not be found on the website, feel free to email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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