Born near Culloden, Georgia, she was the youngest of twelve children. She attended Fort Valley State College and then became a public school teacher in Macon, where she was married to Wilbur Robinson for a short time. Five years later, she went to Atlanta, where she earned an M.A. in English at Atlanta University. After teaching in Texas she then accepted a position at Alabama State College in Montgomery. It was there she joined the Women’s Political Council, which Mary Fair Burks had founded three years earlier. In 1949, Robinson was verbally attacked by a bus driver for sitting in the front “Whites only” section of the bus. Her response to the incident was to attempt to start a protest boycott. But, when she approached her fellow members of the Women’s Political Council with her story and proposal, she was told that it was “a fact of life in Montgomery.” In late 1950, she succeeded Burks as president of the WPC and helped focus the group’s efforts on bus abuses. Robinson was an outspoken critic of the treatment of African-Americans on public transportation. She was also active in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The Women’s Political Council had made complaints about the bus seating to the Montgomery City Commission and about abusive drivers, and achieved some concessions, including an undertaking that drivers would be courteous and having buses stopping at every corner in black neighborhoods, as they did in white areas. After Brown vs. Board of Education, Robinson had informed the mayor of the city that a boycott would come, and then after Rosa Parks’ arrest, they seized the moment to plan the boycott of the buses in Montgomery.
On Thursday, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to move from her seat in the black area of the bus she was traveling on to make way for a white passenger who was standing. Mrs. Parks, a civil rights organizer, had intended to instigate a reaction from white citizens and authorities. That night, with Mrs. Parks permission, Mrs. Robinson stayed up mimeographing 52,500 handbills calling for a boycott of the Montgomery bus system. The boycott was initially planned to be for just the following Monday. She passed out the leaflets at a Friday afternoon meeting of AME Zionist clergy, among other places, and Reverend L. Roy Bennett requested other ministers attend a meeting that Friday night and to urge their congregations to take part in the boycott. Robinson, Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, two of her senior students and other Women’s Council members then passed out the handbills to high school students leaving school that afternoon. After the success of the one-day boycott, black citizens decided to continue the boycott and established the Montgomery Improvement Association to focus their efforts. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was elected president. Jo Ann Robinson never became a member of this group. She had declined an official position to the Montgomery Improvement Association because of her teaching position at Alabama State. She served on its executive board and edited their newsletter. In order to protect her position at Alabama State College and to protect her colleagues, Robinson purposely stayed out of the limelight even though she worked diligently with the MIA. Robinson and other WPC members also helped sustain the boycott by providing transportation for boycotters.
Robinson was the target of several acts of intimidation. In February, 1956, a local police officer threw a stone through the window of her house. Then two weeks later, another police officer poured acid on her car. Then, the governor of Alabama ordered the state police to guard the houses of the boycott leaders. The boycott lasted over a year because the bus company would not give in to the demands of the protesters. After a student sit-in in early 1960, Robinson and other teachers who had supported the students resigned their positions at Alabama State College. Robinson left Alabama State College and moved out of Montgomery that year. She taught at Grambling College in Louisiana for one year then moved to Los Angeles and taught English in the public school system. In Los Angeles, she continued to be active in local women’s organizations. She taught in the LA schools until she retired from teaching in 1976. Jo Ann Robinson was also a part of the bus boycott, and was strongly against discrimination. Robinson’s memoir, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, edited by David J. Garrow, was published in 1987 by the University of Tennessee Press.
- April, 17, 1912
- Culloden, Georgia
- August, 29, 1992
- Los Angeles, California