Invisible leaders of social change

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(NNPA)—Women’s History Month is a reminder that in every major American social reform movement, women have always played a critical role. Many people know Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first rose to national prominence as a civil rights leader by serving as a spokesperson in Montgomery, Ala. during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956. And behind that bus boycott was an unknown community leader named Jo Ann Robinson who had been pushing for change in Montgomery buses and had been putting the community infrastructure in place long before Rosa Parks was arrested.

Jo Ann Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State College, was president of the Women’s Political Council, a group of Black women civic leaders in Montgomery. She had been thrown off a city bus in 1949 for sitting too close to the front, although the bus was nearly empty.

This infuriating experience was all too common among Montgomery’s Black residents—and the WPC had already chosen to make changing the bus system one of their priorities. Their 1954 letter to Montgomery Mayor W.A. Gayle raised the possibility of a city-wide bus boycott: “More and more of our people are already arranging with neighbors and friends to ride to keep from being insulted and humiliated by bus drivers…We, the Council, believe that when this matter has been put before you and the Commissioners, that agreeable terms can be met in a quiet and ostensible manner to the satisfaction of all concerned.”

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