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.

*This post was originally published in January, 2018. Our numbers have swelled since then – welcome new folks! – and it’s such a great example of the power we all have to make change that I wanted to share again. Here’s to making our own change over the next two years. ~with love, M


Actions for the week of January 21, 2020

Tuesday: Call Senators – the Impeachment Process Needs to be fair

Today Donald Trump’s impeachment begins.

As expected, Moscow Mitch is up to his regular tricks, which shouldn’t really surprise anyone. He’s making it difficult for reporters to report, for citizens to pay attention, and he’s put roadblocks up to make it harder for evidence (documentary and witness-based) to come into play.

Our job right now, besides staying informed and sharing with our network, is to contact both of our Senators to tell them that we expect them to abide by their oath to the Constitution, do impartial justice, and make sure the evidence the American people want to see is presented.

So stop reading for a sec, and get out your phone. I’ll wait right here.

Script: Hi, my name is ___ and I’m calling from ___. I am concerned about what I’m hearing about the procedures that will be used at the impeachment trial – because I’m part of the majority of Americans (69%, actually) who want to see the witnesses that were blocked from testifying before the House testify before the Senate as part of the trial. Please ask Senator ___ to vote for a fair trial procedure. We deserve nothing less.

Wednesday: Go to the Source – And Share the Hell out of it

When in doubt – and when faced with the most historic trial in our lifetimes – go to the source for your information.

Expect in the next week/month even more disinformation than we’ve seen in the past. And we’ve been drinking from a firehose of deceit for the last three years already.

So do yourself a favor, and go to the source.

Here’s the Trial Memo from the Impeachment Managers. It’s got a great introduction that’s 8 pages long and (shockingly, at least to me) written in plain english instead of lawyer-speak. https://judiciary.house.gov/uploadedfiles/in_re_president_trump_house_impeachment_trial_brief.pdf

But don’t stop there. Here’s the ENTIRE treasure trove of background documents – the evidentiary record from the House. This record is what’s going to the Senate, and it’s what Senators are NOT going to consider. (At least, not until they get a deluge of calls from us. See Tuesday’s action above.) You can sift through these documents and see them for yourself: https://judiciary.house.gov/the-impeachment-of-donald-john-trump/

Here is the Trump defense trial memo: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Trial-Memorandum-of-President-Donald-J.-Trump.pdf

The House Managers may file a rebuttal brief today; if they do, I’ll update this post online, so come back!

Please share these materials with your social media followers. Mitch might want to keep this trial under wraps, but using the power of the people we can make sure the evidence is widely distributed.

Thursday: Voting + Prom = Magic

Hat tip to Rogan’s List for bringing this one to my attention!

The 2020 Prom Challenge is a collaboration between MTV and When We All Vote that will be giving 20 $5,000 grants to high schools that show innovative ways to inspire students to register to vote.

“Winners will be chosen based on their ability to define creative ways to integrate voter registration into the culture of their school before and/or during prom (extra points for doing both).”

Teachers, administrators, and students can apply. Deadline is March 20, 2020! Check it out at https://mtvprom.whenweallvote.org

Friday: A Day on not a day off

Monday was MLK, Jr. day, and last week we talked about it being a day on – not a day off.

2020 is already shaping up to be … interesting. So let’s take that service-centered focus forward through the rest of this year. It will do our hearts good to be around people – and seeing with our own two eyes the impact we’re making.

Here’s a FABULOUS website where you can find local volunteering opportunities. In my area, I saw posts for vision screeners, park docents, gardeners, photographers, people to help sort donations – you name it. It’s a great place to find something in your area that you can lean into this year. https://nationalservice.gov

WHEW! GO TEAM!

P.S.: Why don’t you make someone’s day and send this pep talk to a friend or two? I bet they need it.

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!

P.P.S.: If you want to help support this work you can do so via Patreon at
https://www.patreon.com/smalldeedsdone or via paypal at https://www.paypal.me/smalldeeds
My deepest gratitude in advance.

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. Don’t you forget it.

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

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