The Behind the Scenes Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Lightening makes no sound until it strikes. ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

This past weekend we paused to remember and celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who tirelessly fought for racial justice and so eloquently stated the case for freedom and equality that his words still send shivers down our spines.

He ascended to national attention during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56.

A boycott that a black woman theorized, organized, publicized, and began.

Jo Ann Robinson grew up on a farm in Georgia – one of 12 children. She was the valedictorian of her high school class and went on to study at Columbia University in NYC. After a brief career as a school teacher, she moved to Montgomery, Alabama in the summer of 1949 to become a professor of English at Alabama State College.

In December 1949, Robinson boarded the bus to the airport, laden with Christmas presents that she was bringing to the family she would visit during her two-week vacation in Ohio. She had closed her eyes, dreaming about her time off and the fun she would have.

She awoke from her reverie to a screaming bus driver, who was irate that she was sitting in the 8th row. At that time in Montgomery, the first ten rows were reserved for white passengers – whether those seats were taken or not – and sitting in a “whites only” section was prohibited.

In tears, she disembarked the bus.

She cried all the way to Cleveland.

She never forgot that incident, and although she had already joined the Women’s Political Council (which had been created in 1946 when the League of Women Voters refused to accept black members), in 1950 she became its president.

She grew the WPC’s membership to hundreds of members in nearly every corner of, and every workplace in, Montgomery. They “were organized to the point that [they] knew that in a matter of hours [they] could corral the whole city.

While WPC was committed to voting rights and civil rights, the treatment of black riders on city buses remained a focus for Robinson, who bristled when she learned that what happened to her on that bus in December 1949 was not uncommon.

So, she and the WPC began to lobby the city and the bus company for better treatment.

She theorized that a boycott of the buses could have a significant impact – between 75-80% of the bus patrons were black, after all.

So after Brown v. Board of Education deemed segregation unconstitutional in public schools in 1954, she increased the intensity of her lobbying efforts – and in a letter to the mayor hinted of a bus boycott if the insulting treatment continued.

Meanwhile, she and her fellow WPC leaders were already planning a bus boycott. They waited for the right opportunity to implement their plan. (In fact, according to Robinson, the boycott “was a spontaneous act from those persons who were not members of the Women’s Political Council. But we had worked for at least three years getting that thing organized.”)

Then, on Thursday, December 1 Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving her bus seat to a white patron.

Robinson later recounted: “[T]he evening that Rosa Parks was arrested, Fred Gray called me and told me . . . her case would be on Monday, and I as President of the main body of the Women’s Political Council got on the phone and I called all the officers of the three chapters. I called as many of the men who had supported us as possible and I told them that Rosa Parks had been arrested and she would be tried. They said, you have the plans, put them into operation.

And that’s exactly what she did.

Robinson hurriedly drafted a flier on her home typewriter, fitting three messages to a page so they could produce multiple leaflets with each copy. As a professor at Alabama State College, she had access to a mimeograph machine (an early copier that used a stencil formed from an original that would be hand-cranked across a drum to produce a copy). A fellow professor let her into the school offices, where she and two of her students stayed up all night copying, cutting, and bundling the leaflets for distribution the next morning.

In total, they produced 35,000 fliers that night.

Then, with no sleep and after teaching her 8:00am class, Robinson and her two trusted students distributed leaflets all across the city – to barber shops and bar halls, factories and schools.

She later recounted: “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.”

On Monday, bus after bus went by – with no black patrons.

The boycott was a massive success.

That night, six thousand community members packed into one of the largest churches in the city and committed to continuing the boycott indefinitely. (As Robinson put it, “You see the Women’s Council planned it only for Monday, and it was left up to the men to take over after we had forced them really to decide whether or not it had been successful enough to continue, and how long it was to be continued.” Apparently, they decided it was successful…)

Also on that night, the Montgomery Improvement Association was created to continue to manage the boycott – with 26-year-old Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as president.

Under King’s leadership, the Montgomery bus boycott continued for 13 months, and inspired a nation.

But most don’t know that the bus boycott began with a group of politically motivated black women – led by Jo Ann Robinson – who had a great idea that they wouldn’t let go.

Most don’t know that for three years women conceptualized, planned and organized a bus boycott – the success of which sent shockwaves through the country.

Most don’t know that an English professor distributed the 35,000 fliers she created advertising one of the most well-documented civil rights protests between her 8:00am and 2:00pm classes.

Most don’t know that after seeing the success of their protest, those same women handed off their accomplishments to “the men,” never demanding the spotlight or even credit for what they had done.

Women have been behind the scenes since, well… since forever.

Martin Luther King Jr. said that lightening makes no sound until it strikes.

I love to hear the thunder.

So here’s to all of the women out there, planning and conceptualizing, theorizing and strategizing.

May you all fly under the radar until you decide to thunder upon the stage.

Let’s get to work.


Tuesday: Support CHIP

“They are looking at you and begging for their child’s life.” – That’s a quote from a recent news piece about a pediatric oncologist who sees the actual human suffering that is being caused by the GOP’s refusal to act on CHIP.

This delay is absolutely obscene. Children with cancer may lose their insurance mid-treatment because of the GOP’s delay. What’s even crazier is that the CBO released a report last week showing that reauthorizing CHIP for 10 years actually saves money.

(CHIP is the Children’s Health Insurance Program – a highly successful bipartisan program that provides health insurance to approximately 9 million children. CHIP funding expired at the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30) and Congress has been unable to pass full funding for it since. At the end of December, they passed a stopgap measure to fund CHIP for a short period of time while they got their ducks in a row, but they got the math wrong and some states will run out of funding as soon as January 19.)

Time to pick up the telephone again and call our rep and Senators and let them know: if you have the budget to give corporations and billionaires a hefty tax cut, you can find money for children’s insurance.

Script: Hi, my name is ____ and I’m a constituent at ____. I’m calling because I’m again disgusted that CHIP funding will soon expire – for some states as early as January 19. If Congress can find funding to give millionaires and billionaires a hefty tax cut, you can certainly find sufficient funds for CHIP – which has been a successful and bipartisan program. Doesn’t Senator/Congressman/woman ______ care about ensuring the children of our state retain their insurance?

Wednesday: Support FQHCs

Federally Qualified Health Centers – also known as FQHCs – provide health care to economically distressed communities (often rural areas). FQHCs get a great deal of funding from the government; that funding was not renewed September 30, and FQHCs have been limping along waiting for Congress to renew their funding.

The latest news suggests that Congress might – might – extend funding for CHIP, but not include FQHCs in that funding.

That’s just ridiculous. I don’t know where they think the 9 million CHIP kids go for healthcare, but chances are that some of them go to FQHCs.

How do I know that? Because twenty five million Americans go to an FQHC.

Over seven million children go to an FQHC.

If funding is not restored, 2,800 sites will close, meaning that 9 million patients will lose access to care, more than 51k providers and staff would lose their jobs, and $7.5 billion in revenue for economically distressed communities would be lost.

Go to this resource to find state-specific impact numbers to use when you are calling your Congresscritters.

Script: Hi, my name is ____ and I’m a constituent at ____. I’m calling to see what  ____ is doing to reauthorize funding community health centers. I’m really concerned about the priorities I’m seeing in Washington. You know something’s wrong when Congress prioritizes giving wealthy people tax cuts when community health centers might have to  shut down, lay people off and turn patients away. This is ridiculous! What is ____ doing right now to help the people of our state/district?

Thursday: Support Dreamers

Today, over 100 people who were brought to this country as children will lose their jobs.

That’s because with every day that passes, 122 DACA recipients lose their status. That status allows them to work – earn a living (and pay taxes).

Don’t get bogged down in the talking points here. Think of the 100+ people every day that lose their ability to work and put food in their kids’ mouths because of the GOP.

Friday it’s hoped that Congress will pass yet another continuing resolution to fund the government in the short term while they get their act together. It’s completely unacceptable if any funding bill doesn’t include protections for Dreamers. We – you and I – need to stand with the Democrats that are demanding protections for these kids, and lobby our GOP congresscritters to join us in defending them.

Head over to, where you’ll find scripts that are specific to your state – including data like how many Dreamers live in your state and contribute to your economy. You can also see whether your Senators and Representative are “dream heroes” who have pledged to vote against any spending bill that doesn’t offer protections for Dreamers … or “dream killers” who have not.

Friday: Support Net Neutrality

Word on the street is that there are 50 Senators that will vote in favor of a legislative measure that could reverse the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality. That means we only need one more (in the Senate)! This is a big deal – if this resolution passes the Senate, it goes to the House, where the members would have to publicly take a position on whether they would save net neutrality.

So, call your Senators – thank them if they are standing with Americans and voting in favor of net neutrality. And tell them you’re watching and you expect any GOP Senators to join Susan Collins and vote for what’s in their constituents’ best interest.

Script: Hi, my name is ___ and I’m a constituent at ____. I’m calling because I want the Senator to join Susan Collins and the Democratic caucus, and vote to reverse the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality. Having a free and fair internet is a bipartisan issue, and I’m incredibly disappointed to see the GOP’s unwillingness to listen to the American people – who clearly want net neutrality. I’m watching to see what the Senator does on this issue.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for writing. I read and respond to every e-mail. (Really! I really do!) We’re in this together.

If you want one more quick action, make someone’s day and send this pep talk to a friend or two.

If you’d like to sign up to get this pep talk and action list in your in-box each week, you can do that here. Welcome, friend!

Lastly, if you’d like to support this work (thanks to those who have done so!), you can become a supporter here.

Have a thought? A small deed to suggest? Share it here!

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