The Behind the Scenes Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott

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


Last month – just two days before the inauguration – 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.

We know much about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s story.

I’d like to share hers.

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.

Actions for the Week of February 9, 2021

Tuesday: Impeachment, the Sequel

Here we are again, friends. Impeachment round 2. Over the course of the week we’ll hear a replay of the events of January 6 from impeachment managers, while Senators sit for their second trial of Donald J. Trump.

It may seem that there is no way that 17 Senators will vote to convict. For myself, I am not so sure. Nothing is impossible, and if the last four years have taught us anything it’s that we can’t afford to give up in advance.

So this week, there will be plenty of opportunities to call on our Senators with specific pieces of evidence as proof that Trump should be convicted. As you hear arguments and see reporting that gets you riled up … pause before you Tweet about it, and pick up the phone first! Call your Senators and explain why Trump should be impeached. (Then, when you tweet, tag them!)

Script: Hi, my name is ___ and I’m calling from [zip code]. I’m calling because I’ve been paying attention to the impeachment trial, and I want to encourage the Senator to vote to convict. In particular, today I saw that [insert evidence that you learned/were reminded of]. If the Senator does not vote to convict, it sends a message that this behavior is not going to have consequences. History will not be kind. Please consider the evidence in front of you, and what you saw with your own eyes and ears. Hold Trump accountable. Thanks!

Wednesday: Kick them in the Wallet!

Shout out to all those folks who live in states with at least one member of the Sedition Caucus!

Sigh.

The Sedition Caucus, is, of course, the 147 members of congress (both senate and house) who voted to overturn the election results – even after the insurrection. These folks don’t deserve to stay in office.

But their elections are two years away. What can we do now? Well, I have two options!

First, you can start chipping in to all of their Democratic opponents by joining It Starts Today’s project here. The proceeds are split evenly among the Democratic challengers. Easy! Sign up here: https://contribute.itstarts.today/anti-sedition

Second, you can take a gander at Open Secrets’ list of donors to EACH of the Sedition Caucus members HERE. From there, you can isolate what organizations/companies that you have supported with your time and dollars have supported those who rewarded insurrectionists by perpetrating the Big Lie.

Here in Missouri, the Indivisibles are working together on a project using this data for Missouri’s Members of Congress. If you are a member of any organizations that operate as chapters across the state, you can and should do the same thing for your Sedition Caucus member!

A note of caution – donations are tracked and reported in the data if they are made by the corporations, or if they are made by the individuals working there. (They are marked and tracked separately – it’s clear in the data.) The corporate entities obviously don’t have any control over the donations made by their individual employees – so when you are getting ready to target various companies, make sure you are focusing your attention on those that are making donations as a corporate entity.

Thursday: DC Needs to Be a State Already

We’ve had this action before, so I was SO glad this week to see other great activist organizations take up the same call! Jess at Chop Wood Carry Water, Jen Hoffman at American of Conscience, Indivisible, and 5 Calls ALL have D.C. statehood at top of mind this week!

Why?

There are many reasons for D.C. to be a state. They pay federal taxes but don’t have representation, their local laws can be overruled by Congress, they have more people than Vermont and Wyoming (on par with Alaska) – and they have voted for statehood. (Their license plates state “No Taxation Without Representation.) But, most importantly, because D.C. is not a state, it did not have the ability to call the national guard itself on January 6.

As 5 Calls aptly put it:

Given the recent events, lawmakers should prioritize making the District of Columbia a state and ensure that every American has fair and equal representation in the federal government. Demand that your Members of Congress support  H.R. 51 and S. 51 to finally grant statehood to the District of Columbia.

So let’s do that!

Script to Representative: Hi, my name is ____ and I’m calling from zip code ___. I support HR 51 to make the District of Columbia a state. D.C. residents pay federal taxes but don’t have representation – and should have the same protections as a state. It’s clear based on recent events that D.C. should be made a state, and I want this to be a priority. What is the Congress(wo)man’s position on H.R. 51?

Friday: Support the American Rescue Plan!

Biden’s current coronavirus plan would:

  • provide $1,400 in direct payments to most Americans,
  • increase the federal per-week unemployment benefit to $400 until September 31st,
  • increase the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour,
  • extend the eviction and foreclosure moratoriums until September 31st,
  • increase the Child Tax Credit to $3,000 per child ($3,600 for children under 6)
  • give $170 billion for K-12 schools and institutions of higher education,
  • provide $350 billion in state and local government aid (super duper important!)
  • add an additional $50 billion toward Covid-19 testing, and
  • provide $20 billion toward a national vaccination program.

We need ALL of this. The big sticking point for a lot of republicans in the Senate has been support for state and local governments – who have been totally left in the lurch. Now it’s up to us to call our Senators and Representatives and get them to pass it as-is.

You know the drill! Go get that phone! (You can make this same ask of your rep and your senators!)

Script: Hi, my name is ____ and I’m calling today about the American Rescue Plan. Like a majority of Americans, I believe that we need what is in this bill – and I want you to pass it as-is. People are hurting, local and state governments need help immediately, and we need more resources for vaccines and to support our schools. Please help your constituents and support this bill as-is!

DID YOU KNOW YOU’RE A ROCK STAR? I DID. SUPER PROUD OF YOU!

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. 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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