The invisible leaders of social change, civil rights

Marian Wright Edelman | 3/31/2014, 12:27 p.m.
Women’s History Month is a reminder that in every major American social reform movement, women have always played a critical ...
Marian Wright Edelman

(NNPA) – Women’s History Month is a reminder that in every major American social reform movement, women have always played a critical role. 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, Ala., during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956. And behind that bus boycott was an unknown community leader named Jo Ann Robinson who had been pushing for change in Montgomery buses and had been putting the community infrastructure in place long before Rosa Parks was arrested.

Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State College, was president of the Women’s Political Council, 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. Their 1954 letter to Montgomery Mayor W.A. Gayle 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 ostensible 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 face – and when that moment came 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 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 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.”