By Robert Heinrich
Why think of American history in terms of biography? Perhaps most obviously, looking at individuals’ lives allows us to see behind the curtain of many of the great events and movements in American history. We not only learn more about those people rightly acknowledged for their accomplishments but we also rediscover those who, for various reasons, never received due credit.
Last August, Susan Ware, the general editor of the American National Biography (ANB), asked me to write an ANB entry for civil rights activist Jo Ann Robinson, one of the organizers and leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956. I’d written my doctoral dissertation at Brandeis on Montgomery’s civil rights movement, and I was happy to represent Robinson in the ANB. I had no idea at the time that I would join its staff as assistant editor a year later. Robinson’s remarkable story epitomizes why I’m looking forward to working on the ANB: my belief in the importance of focusing on individual people when telling the story of American history.
Jo Ann Robinson lacks the name recognition of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., but she played a crucial role in mounting the struggle that today allows Montgomery to market itself as the “Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.” (It also calls itself the “Cradle of the Confederacy,” an irony not lost on the city’s residents.) A professor of English at Alabama State College (now University), Robinson served as president of the Women’s Political Council, a civil rights organization formed by middle-class black women. The WPC, alongside local Pullman porter and NAACP activist E.D. Nixon, organized the boycott. When it came time to publicize the protest, being a college professor offered a practical benefit—Robinson could use Alabama State’s mimeograph machine to make flyers alerting local blacks to stay off the buses beginning on 5 December 1955. When Montgomery blacks decided to continue the boycott indefinitely, Robinson joined the new Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and edited its newsletter throughout the protest.
For me though, one of the most interesting things about studying the life of a notable person is learning what they did besides their claim to fame (such that it is). In Robinson’s case, taking a closer look at her life reveals a local civil rights movement that also occurred away from national media attention, before and after the famed boycott. The Women’s Political Council was active in community improvement beginning in 1949. It organized programs for local young people, and it encouraged blacks to attempt to register to vote by holding voter education workshops and staging mock elections. Eventually the WPC became the liaison between Montgomery blacks and the city government. When city leaders ignored their complaints about discrimination on the buses, WPC members mobilized for a boycott.
Robinson did not view the civil rights struggle as ending with that bus boycott either. She continued to serve as MIA secretary and edit the organization’s newsletter for the next four years. Her life during that time reveals the difficulty Montgomery blacks faced fighting for their rights in spite of—or, perhaps more accurately, because of—their successful boycott. The city’s white supremacists remained militant. In 1957, Robinson participated in the meetings of a new interracial organization, the Fellowship of the Concerned, a group comprised of white and black churchwomen. Even though the Fellowship of the Concerned had no intention of planning any protest, whites viewed its existence alone as protest enough. The editor of a white supremacist newspaper published the names of all of the attendees—as well as the names of their husbands, most of whom knew nothing about the meeting. Many white men, business owners in particular, encouraged their wives to affirm their commitment to white supremacy by dismissing the organization publicly. The Fellowship of the Concerned fizzled.
If local white supremacists were a difficult opponent for Robinson, the state government proved to be an insurmountable one. Alabama State students organized Montgomery’s first sit-ins in March 1960, and Governor John Patterson took a novel approach to meting out punishment: he not only expelled nine student leaders but also targeted activist faculty members for dismissal. Robinson had fought enough by that point. She resigned and, after a one-year detour at Grambling State in Louisiana, moved to Los Angeles. One of the most important figures in Montgomery’s civil rights struggle, Robinson, like Rosa Parks before her, left the city even before the Freedom Riders arrived in 1961.
In Los Angeles, Robinson took a job in the city schools, continuing to serve her community by teaching its children until her retirement in 1976. But she had one more major contribution to make to the story of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1987, she published The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, an invaluable account of the bus protest. Coming out the same year as the Eyes on the Prize documentary series, Robinson’s book underscored the breadth of the protest by introducing readers to an overlooked but absolutely integral aspect of the boycott: the near unanimous participation of Montgomery’s black women.
Looking at Robinson’s life allows us to better understand not only the famous bus boycott but also the ways in which relatively unknown local protests worked. Stories like hers force us to focus on the roles of individuals in all aspects of American history.
Robert Heinrich is an assistant editor on the American National Biography Online. He received his Ph.D in History from Brandeis University.
The landmark American National Biography offers portraits of more than 18,700 men and women — from all eras and walks of life — whose lives have shaped the nation. First published in 24 volumes in 1999, the ANB received instant acclaim as the new authority in American biographies, and continues to serve readers in thousands of school, public, and academic libraries around the world. Its online counterpart, ANB Online, is a regularly updated resource currently offering portraits of over 18,700 biographies, including the 17,435 of the print edition. ACLS sponsors the ANB, which is published by Oxford University Press.