The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It by Jo Ann Gibson Robinson. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987. 190 pp. $12.95.)
By Gregg Barak
Vol. 10, No. 3, 1988, pp. 18, 20
The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It is a historically significant contribution to the study of the civil rights movement. The book establishes the essential background information on the events leading up to the bus boycott of 1955-56, and also provides an examination of black activism in Montgomery prior to and during the boycott. [See “Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott” by David Garrow, SOUTHERN CHANGES, Oct.-Dec. 1985].
In retelling the story, Jo Ann Gibson Robinson–one of the female activists who instigated the boycott–takes the reader through the joys and sorrows of some 50,000 blacks who refused to ride public city buses until the demeaning, humiliating, and intolerable conditions of segregation were removed.
Robinson’s memoir provides documentary evidence that it was black women of the Women’s Political Council (WPC), a group of mostly professionally-trained educators, social workers, nurses, and other community workers, who actually initiated and set into motion the Montgomery bus boycott, rather than Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or other ministers and black civic leaders. While many people were well aware of the debilitating effects of segregation on blacks and whites alike, it was these women who formed the WPC for the “purpose of inspiring Negroes to live above mediocrity, to elevate their thinking, to fight juvenile and adult delinquency, to register to vote, and in general to improve their status as a group.” And when the time was right and the black population of Montgomery was ready to stand up against segregation, the WPC was prepared to act.
Perhaps more importantly, Robinson’s story provides a personal narrative on the human situation and on the various racial struggles against injustice, oppression, hatred and violence as these relate to both the individual and the collective condition.
In successfully integrating the private and public aspects of a political struggle, Robinson reveals how she and her associates of the WPC were conscious that they were “laying their all on the line in organizing themselves to defeat segregation in the heart of the Confederacy.”
These women fully understood that by publicly challenging the codes of segregation exemplified by Montgomery’s laws on riding municipal buses, they were opening themselves up to public ridicule and private ruin. They also understood that the “double double standard” implicit in the patriarchal and racial relations of the Old South afforded black women more opportunities to come forward with their protest than were available to their more threatening male counterparts. Robinson declares, “We were ‘women power,’ organized to cope with any injustice, no matter what, against the darker sect.”
Robinson’s manuscript is as much a sociological and psychological treatise on race relations and human wills as it is an important historical work. In offering a first-hand account of racial inequality under siege, Robinson gets inside the pained psyches of black men, women, and children who were constantly under all forms of physical, verbal, and emotional assault at the hands of the dominant white culture. With ease and passion, she communicates the calm as well as the exhilaration of well-organized Southern blacks who, with determination, self-sacrifice, and discipline–and with the assistance of people attracted to their cause throughout the nation and the world–were able to turn back the legalized bigotry of the South.
Robinson demonstrates her profound insight into the human condition when she is able to relate the personal ambivalence of both blacks and whites toward the struggle. But what I found particularly impressive was her ability to avoid vilifying her adversaries. She evokes a sympathetic, even empathetic appreciation of the plights of the seemingly unlikely coalition of Southern white gentlemen, illiterates, “ne’er-do-wells,” and others “disappointed in life” who came together to form the White Citizens’ Council. The text vividly depicts the feelings and attitudes of the black experience while also exploring the varied white reactions.
Among the many interesting reflections in THE MONTGOMERY BUS BOYCOTT, there are three that particularly illustrate Robinson’s perceptive analysis of race and social change. First is her discussion of how a lack of social self-esteem caused by racism may increase the incidences of intraspecific crime and deviance, especially those acts involved in domestic violence. On the other hand, she points out how the humiliating experiences of racism and the associated deviant behavior may actually be reduced through organized community action for civil rights. Not only are these astute observations on the relationships between crime and racism similar to those made by Franz Fanon in his classic analysis of race and colonialism in The Wretched of the Earth, but they have also been verified in social science literature as far back as 1965.
Second is Robinson’s portrayal of the politically sensitive covert role played by Alabama State College in the movement to end busing discrimination. As a predominantly black institution–the only four-year public college or university in Montgomery before the sixties–Alabama State had to maintain a low public profile while actively participating in the boycott.
In the sixties, when integration was court-ordered in Alabama’s public universities and colleges, branch campuses of Auburn University and Troy State University were established in Montgomery to provide the city with “white campuses” and to circumvent racial integration on any terms other than white majority. Today, Alabama State remains almost exclusively black, and the three university
systems along with others have been involved for several years in a federal lawsuit over charges that Alabama maintains a racially segregated system of higher education. Until such time as the several public university systems are integrated into a statewide university system, and until such time as the legacies of institutional segregation are eliminated, the political roles played by members of the ASU community will remain highly sensitive ones.
Third is Robinson’s treatment of the contradictory legal battles of the boycott, in which white and black leaders found themselves to be both accused and accusing. In describing the get-tough policies of the city administration, the harassment of the boycotters, and the indictments and arrests of 115 black leaders for committing the misdemeanor crime of “conspiring to boycott” which resulted in the lone prosecution and conviction of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Robinson reveals how boycotters’ consciousness of the political and constitutional implications of their actions contributed to the dialectic that enabled the “powerless” to prevail, in this instance, over the “powers that be.”
Robinson has written a truly remarkable book that will be cited by historians for generations to come. But more important, her story about love and hate deserves the attention of all people. Especially in today’s racially tense America, this book should not only be widely adopted in high schools and colleges, but it should be made into a film or video production. For this story needs constant telling, not for the purpose of condemning the discriminators per se, but to remind people that the struggles for justice–racial, economic, and political–continue.
Gregg Barak is chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at Alabama State University. He also serves as book review editor for CRIME AND SOCIAL JUSTICE and is the author of IN DEFENSE OF WHOM? A CRITIQUE OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM.