Interviewers: Llew Smith and Judy Richardson
Production Team: D
Interview Date: August 27, 1979
Interview Place: Montgomery, Alabama
Camera Rolls: 8-12
Sound Rolls: 4-6
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Jo Ann Robinson, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on August 27, 1979, for Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Sound Roll 5, Camera Roll 0, Tape 11. Interviewers: Llew Smith and Judy Richardson.
This is 27 August '79, Montgomery, Alabama, Capitol City, Blackside, Sound Roll 5, Camera Roll 7.
OK, I just changed the 5. Camera Roll 7 is shooting inside M-O-S, Holt Street Baptist Church. That's for the last interview.
OK, this will be Jo Ann Robinson interview at Alabama State College.
This is Sound Roll 5 starting and also camera roll 8.
THE FIRST IS THE WEEKEND OF THE BOYCOTT, AND HOW PEOPLE—DID YOU REALLY BELIEVE ONCE THE LEAFLETS HAD BEEN SENT OUT THAT THERE WAS GOING TO BE A BOYCOTT?
I was a part of it. I knew there was going to be a boycott.
THAT'S LESS THAN THIRTY SECONDS.
I was the President of the Women's Council and we had prepared for this. [laughter]
OK, HOW ABOUT THE WOMEN'S POLITICAL COUNCIL?
The Women's Political Council was an organization that had begun in 1946, after just dozens of black people had been arrested on the buses for segregation purposes. And at that time, the black woman and the white man were the freest people in the southern states. And we knew that if something hadn't been done by the women there wouldn't be anything done. And we had sat down and, and witnessed the arrests and humiliation and the court trials and fines paid people who just sat down on an empty seat. And so we knew something had to be done. We organized the Women's Council, and oh, within a month's time we had over a hundred members. We organized a second chapter and a third, so we had more than 300 members in that organization. We had members in every elementary, junior high and senior high school. We had them organized from federal and, and state, and local jobs, wherever there were more than 10 blacks employed we had a member there and we were organized to the point that we knew that in a matter of hours we could corral the whole city.
WHEN YOU LOOK BACK IN HISTORY, IT LOOKS LIKE THE BOYCOTT WAS A SPONTANEOUS ACT PROVOKED BY THE ARREST OF ROSA PARKS. WAS IT?
It 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. The night that the—the night of the evening that Rosa Parks was arrested, Fred Gray called me and told me she was arrested, she had somebody going her bail, but 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. I called every person who was in every school and everyplace where we had planned to be at that house, have somebody at that school or wherever it was at a certain time that I would be there with materials for them to disseminate. I didn't go to bed that night. I cut those stencils. I ran off 35,000 copies** of the little foyer that you have. And I distributed them. I had classes from 8:00 to 10:00 at the college. And at 10:00 I had two senior students who had agreed to go with me. I took them in my car. The packages were already there. It would take about a half a minute to drive on the school campus, the kid would be there, in just a minute they would disappear.
THE MINISTERS WERE MEETING AT THE SAME TIME?
The ministers were not at 10:00. The ministers were meeting that afternoon, or sometime during the day on High, High Street. They were having the International Ministerial Association meeting. And after we had circulated those 35,000 circulars, then we went by the church. That was about 3:30 in the afternoon and we took them to the ministers. And it was there that they learned there was to be a boycott and they agreed to meet at Dr. King's church, Dexter Avenue, that night to decide what should be done about the boycott after the first day. 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.
HOW DID MOST PEOPLE FOUND OUT ABOUT IT? THE LEAFLETS WERE DISTRIBUTED—DID THE NEWSPAPER ARTICLES-?
We, we had just everything in our favor, because we distributed the 35,000 copies and most of the people got the message, but there were outlying areas that didn't get it. And one lone black woman who was so faithful to her white lady as she called it, went back to work and took one of the, the circulars to this woman so she would know what the blacks had planned. When the woman got it, she immediately called the media, and then following that, the television, the radios, and news, and evening newspapers, everybody told those persons whom we had not reached, that there would be the boycott. So the die was cast.
SUNDAY NIGHT, WHAT WAS THE WEATHER LIKE, THE WEATHER PROJECTION?
We thought nature was going to fail us because the latter part of Sunday afternoon it started clouding and Sunday night nobody was left. Monday morning was very dreary, dark, cloudy and the threat of rain, and it remained that way practically all day. But thanks be to goodness very few people rode the bus Monday morning, and all of us were around to see how many got on them [laughter].
That was one of those things—
OK that was a cut, disregard those last two bloops.
BACK AGAIN, JUST TO THE, THE DISTRIBUTION OF THE MATERIALS. YOU TYPED THEM UP AND MIMEOGRAPHED THEM OFF. HOW DID THEY GET OUT?
Oh, I thought I mentioned that. I cut stencils and took them to the college. The fellow who let me in during the night is dead now, John Cannon, but he was in the business department. And we went in and ran those off. And this is the first time that has ever been told. We ran off those copies and we cut them because I had two on a sheet before we left there. And he went back to bed, and I went home, and that's where I prepared these materials. But they were, now I cut them on my own typewriter, but they were run off in the business office of the college.
HOW DID THEY GET OUT TO PEOPLE?
Oh, I mentioned that. I guess I wasn't clear. I took them to school with me in my car, after I had talked with every member in the elementary, junior high and senior high schools to have somebody on the campus that I would be there at a certain time during the day and deliver them. I taught my classes from 8:00 to 10:00. I was free from 10:00 to 2:00, and when my 10:00 o'clock class was over, I took two senior students with me and I had them in my car, bundled and ready to be given out. And I would drive to the place of dissemination. A kid would be there to grab them, disappear. And I was on the campus and off, or in the front of the place or wherever it was, before anybody knew that I was there. I delivered them in my car, yeah.
MONDAY, THE DECISION IS MADE TO CONTINUE THE BOYCOTT.
Monday night, the ministers held their meeting at Holt Street Baptist church, and they voted unanimously to continue the boycott. And instead of it lasting one day as the Women's Council had planned it, it lasted for thirteen months.
WHAT KEPT IT GOING?
The spirit, the desire, the injustices that had been endured by thousands of people through the years. I think that people were fed up, they had reached the point that they knew there was no return, that they had to do it or die. And that's what kept it going. It was the sheer spirit for freedom, for the feeling of being a man and a woman.
ONE OF THE THINGS [unintelligible] WE ARE REALLY THE BEST OF AMERICANS, THE MOST PATRIOTIC, WE REALLY DO BELIEVE CONSTITUTION, DEMOCRACY, WAS THAT, DO YOU THINK THAT WAS REFLECTED...
Blacks had endured much more, I believe, than any ethnic group could possibly endure, trying to be, to be obedient to the system. And I think they would not have boycotted those buses if they had not from time to time met courts, had lawyers to try to defend these people whose only accusation was that they sat down in a seat where the whites had the, the seats had been reserved for whites. No reason at all, but for everyone who was arrested, even children, arrested and paid fines, because they dared to sit in those reserved seats. So I think blacks are certainly cooperative people. I think they are good citizens. I think they abide by the law. Only when they had been driven to the nth degree where they could not take anymore, were they willing to do what they did. And that, that boycott was not supported by a few people, it was supported by 52,000 blacks, who were the population then at the time that I was here. They were fed up. They had had it.
THERE MUST HAVE BEEN SOME MOMENTS IN THOSE THIRTEEN MONTHS WHEN THE PRESSURE TO BREAK WAS ENORMOUS.
Well, I never reached a point where I was sorry. I reached a point where I was scared. They broke, the police broke out my picture window. They, they, the man next door trailed them downtown and Mr. Sellers, who was the fellows who was the Police Commissioner asked that man if he wanted to live when he followed the police and told them that they had broken out my window. And when the man said yes, he wanted to live, he said, but you go home and check your files. They got away with it. They broke my window. And not too long after that, I had a, a carport, and I had my car, it was the new Chrysler parked under that carport. I'd never turn my lights on until I went to bed. I sat up there in the dark, and many of the people from the college sat with me, because they knew I'd been getting a lot of threatening calls. But that particular night, about two weeks after they had broken my picture window, I heard a noise on the side where my car was, and I went and looked out the window in the dark, and there were two policemen scattering something on the top of my car, on the hood of the car. I didn't know what it was. I saw them when they went back and got in their car and drove away. The next morning my car was eaten up with acid. I had holes as large as a dollar, all over the, the, the top of the car, all over the hood, or the motor, and the side of the car, and at first I thought it was a terrible tragedy, but it became to mean a great significance to me. And I did say, I will say, that after that, it was reported to the Governor, and Mr. Folsom, then put a State Highway Patrolman on my house, just as he had Dr. King, Rev. Abernathy and Mr. Nixon, and that patrol car guarded my house until the boycott was over. It was frightening.
Editor, please note there's an air conditioning duct in the back. It can be rolled off in the mix. Help me out, all right.
Camera is going to reel 9. Still on Mrs. Robinson.
...that there were many whites who were with us all the way. I used to drive until 12:00 at night in my car, and many times there were white women driving, going to the parking lot, you know about the parking lot downtown where it served as the interchange for different directions. And those women were driving, pick those people up. Now at one time when I would get up at maybe 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning and start driving that I would run into whites with blacks and I thought they were picking up their maids or those persons who were working for them. But it turned out that they were there helping those people to get where they were going. So I would have to say that there were many sympathetic whites who knew that the system was wrong and they were doing what they could to help to correct it.**
LET'S GO BACK TO THIRTEEN MONTHS WITH THE UPS AND DOWNS, IT MUST HAVE BEEN AN ENORMOUS EMOTIONAL SWING.
Well, many people lost their jobs during that thirteen month period because it had aroused the antagonism of the white community, those who were not sympathetic toward the cause. And for those who lost their jobs there were the rest of us who had to help them. The Montgomery Improvement Association was organized shortly after that. And every Monday night we held meetings. They would take up collection for those persons who didn't have jobs to help them to get along. There's one thing I can say, that all of when the bus, buses were finally put out of business, and the bus drivers were out of work, they were employed as policemen. So they, they had a continuation of income. And many of those policemen would give just hundreds and hundreds of tickets everyday to people who were not violating any traffic laws, but they were doing it to help to raise the salaries that they had lost. But...
WHAT DO YOU THINK WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF THE SUPREME COURT HADN'T VOTED THE WAY IT DID?
The Supreme Court had to. There was no turning back. In thirteen months, the bus company had completely been put out of business. There was no transportation at all for anybody, white or black. And the white constituted about one third of the riders anyway. Half of them had stopped riding before many weeks after the beginning of the bus boycott because out of sympathy for them. And then the others were afraid to ride because they didn't know what might happen to them. So, the bus company closed down. They were completely out of work. And that's why those drivers were employed as police people. Now when you ask why the courts had to come in, they had to come in. You get 52,000 people in the streets and nobody's showing any fear, something had to give. And so the Supreme, Supreme Court had to rule that the segregation was not the, the way of life.
WHERE WERE YOU WHEN THAT DECISION HAPPENED?
Well, during the entire thirteen months I was a member of that board that constituted half white and black, you know, to mediate, we met weekly, and I don't know the exact moment when the news came through, but we anticipated it anytime, and had expected it much sooner than it came. I was very closely associated with Fred Grey, attorney, and we kept in almost weekly contact to keep me posted so I could keep the Women's Political Council informed. So, where I was, I don't know, but I do know one thing, that we knew it was coming and we knew that it would have to come sooner or later.
BUT WHEN IT CAME WAS THERE A COMMUNITY MEETING TO GET READY AND-
And rejoicing and I told you so's, and the happiness of thirteen weary months coming to light again. Yes, that was a meeting, and I might mention-
TELL ME THAT AGAIN.
Yes, that we did meet after the news came through. And all of these people who had fought for thirteen months got together to, to communicate and to rejoice and to share that built up emotion and all of the other feelings that they had lived with during the, the past thirteen months. And we just rejoiced together.
THAT'S A TAIL.
[unintelligible background conversation][laughter]
They came, they came together and worked like Trojans.
You probably want to know what was the outcome of the Monday night meeting after the first day of boycotting. Well, they had agreed at the Friday night meeting at Dexter, Dr. King's church, that they would call this meeting at Holt Street because it was the largest church in the city and could accommodate more people. And they would let the audience determine whether or not they would continue the bus boycott or end it in one day. There were, the church itself holds four or five thousand people. But there were thousands of people outside of the church that night. And they had to put loud speakers so they would know what was happening. When they got through reporting that very few people had ridden the bus, that the boycott was really a success, overwhelmingly, I don't know if there was one vote that said, no, don't continue. The people wanted to continue that boycott. They had been touched by the persecution, the humiliation that many of them had endured on buses. And they voted for it unanimously, and that meant thousands of people.** But let me mention one more thing, at that meeting they had every medium there, radio or television, newspaper, all over the place with the lights, the lights flashing, and nobody cared whether they were there or not, when they voted to continue that bus boycott. And of course the next morning the paper blazed away and way into the night the television and radio blasted away, that blacks were going to continue the bus boycott. And so the meeting was met with great thanksgiving that it had started.
AS THE BOYCOTT WENT ON, DO YOU THINK THE PEOPLE OF, THE BLACK PEOPLE IN MONTGOMERY UNDERSTOOD THE GROWING IMPORTANCE AS PEOPLE AROUND THE WORLD BEGAN TO PAY ATTENTION?
At first I don't think they were thinking about the people around the world. I really think they were thinking about themselves, because you had to be in Montgomery to know what they had suffered and endured. And many of the things that I have in my manuscript that I hope someday you will find an opportunity to tell about, the, the suffering was immense. It had touched the homes of thousands of people through the...the last ten years of, of Alabama state.
I NEED SOME KIND OF SINGLE LINES TO HELP ME INTRODUCE PEOPLE, SO JUST GIVE ME ONE LINE ON PEOPLE LIKE VIRGINIA AND FRED DURR.
OK, Virginia Durr and Attorney Durr were lifesavers to us because we had no money, and Attorney Durr helped us with the legal matters. He helped Fred Gray with the legal matters.
E.D. Nixon was one of the few black men who was not afraid in Montgomery. When I went to Alabama State in forty-nine, E.D. Nixon had an organization. And it tried, but there were very few people who worked with him for various reasons of which I cannot state. But his organization, though he protested individually, it didn't have too much power behind it because it was small in number. Mr. Lewis also had an organization, the Citizen's Council, but the following was not great enough to be of too much of a threat.
Ralph Abernathy was Dr. King's image. He worked with Dr. King and they worked together as a team. He really didn't come into his own until after Dr. King died.
—KING, 26 YEARS OLD.
The only thing I can say to describe Dr. King is that he was dynamite. He was one of the most intellectually trained people I have ever talked with in my life. He, his background was profound. His faith in himself, his spirituality went far beyond the average person. He had great faith in himself. He had great faith in the people. And when they asked him at that meeting at Holt Street that Monday night if he would be willing to serve as President, at first he hinged because he was just out of graduate school and he admitted that he just didn't know what it was all about. But they insisted upon him and he took it. And you know for yourselves during the thirteen months and since then that Martin Luther King was one of the few men who could have done what we were able to do in Montgomery.
LAST QUESTION. WHAT DID IT MEAN, MONTGOMERY? WHAT DID YOU ACCOMPLISH?
Today Montgomery is completely void of segregation, although the Ku Klux Klan marched from Selma into Montgomery two weeks ago. I know you read about it and those over the country. But any hotel, any eating establishment, anywhere blacks want to go they can go. Whereas before, we couldn't go even to a public park. Blacks didn't even have a swimming pool anywhere in the city, and they constituted 52% of 123,000 people. There was no swimming, public swimming pool for them. They had no, there was no-
WHAT DID IT MEAN JO ANN, WHAT DID IT MEAN?
What did it mean? It meant that blacks feel like human beings now. They feel like citizens. Life now is worth living in Montgomery-
End of tape 11.[laughter]
27 August '79, Cap Cities, Blackside. This is sound roll six, camera roll 9, Robinson interview continues.
Correction, camera roll 10.
TRY AGAIN, MEANING, MEANING OF MONTGOMERY-
Now, Montgomery today is a, an integrated community. Everything that was fought for the Negro in 1955 has been opened up to black Americans. They go into the parks, they go to the hotel, they go to any recreation establishments, they can go to any restaurant. There is nothing here now that they, that is not opened to them.
I THINK MOST KIDS LOOKING AT YOU NOW WOULD THINK WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT.
Well, certainly there's discrimination, and I have, I mean legally-
NO, I MEANT THEY WERE JUST-
All right legally, they cannot be barred from any place in Montgomery. I talked to one or two of the people this morning when I came in that legally and within the law they cannot segregate anything or anybody. And they could not arrest and put anybody in jail for it. Now, maybe for instance the Ku Klux Klan marched in, I mentioned that just to say that they were fighting for white power, but that white power means nothing now.
IN 1955, THIRTEEN MONTHS YOU WON.
We won. We felt that we were citizens. This is not a part of the bus boycott, but right at the bat when we won, they—integration of the buses, we started right back with the sit-ins and then the stand-ins, that opened up all of these segregated stations, train, and plane and that kind of thing. Nobody ever talks about that but that was a continuation of that bus boycott. We integrated the buses and then you remember that Montgomery started the stand-ins, going into places where they were not served, and demanding to be served.
AT THAT MOMENT THOUGH, WHAT HAD YOU WON?
We had won self respect. We had won a feeling that we had achieved, had accomplished. We had, we had, we felt that we were somebody, that somebody had to listen to us, that we had forced the white man to give what we knew was a part of our own citizenship, and so we had won that. And if you have never had the feeling to feel that this is not the other man's country and you are an alien in it, but that this is your country too, then you don't know what I'm talking about. But it is a, a hilarious feeling that just goes all over you that makes you feel that America is a great country and we're going to do more to make it greater.**
This is wild sound. Mrs. Robinson.
Well, there have been, leading up to the boycott, there have been more than fourteen cases that really reached the hearts of all of the people of Montgomery that wherein bus drivers have made people get up off the buses for whites and if they didn't get up they were arrested. But two particular instances was that there were two children, a brother and sister, ten and twelve, who had been brought up in an integrated situation who were on the bus and when the bus driver invited them to get up and said things to them that he shouldn't have said, the kids didn't even know what he was talking about. The police were called, those two kids were arrested, put in jail, they had their trial and they had to pay a heavy fine. There was a woman who got on the bus with twins, one in each arm, she had put her babies on the front seat to get her money out of her purse, and the bus driver in anger yelled, "Get those black dirty brats off of that seat." And then lines—they bust forward and threw those kids in the aisle so that the mother and the children both got off the bus. Those were just two of the instances that helped to infuriate, but then was a case of a Mr. Brooks who had had a drink too many, and got on the bus. And the bus driver said something to it, and he was brave enough to say it back. The bus driver called the police, and they killed that man right there on that bus. There were many situations of that kind where people were arrested and had to pay heavy fines. One woman in particular who was arrested and because she refused to get up off the seat and she said quite a few things to the bus driver. So he told her to get off the bus. She pay a fare, a second fare. The woman refused to pay the fare because she had had a transfer, and that was her fare. So when she got off the bus, the bus driver got out behind her, and beat her up right there at the, at the bus station and then called the police. So when the police were called that woman was arrested, put in jail, and they had a trial, and she had to pay fifty-two dollars for disorderly conduct just for defending herself.
Second take wild.
Monday morning, December the 5th, 1955, I shall never forget because many of us had not gone to bed that night. It was a day of the boycott. We had been up waiting for the first buses to pass to see if any riders were on the buses. It was a cold morning, cloudy, there was a threat of rain, and we were afraid that if it rained the people would get on the bus. But as the buses began to roll, and there were one or two on some of them, none on some of them, then we began to realize that the people were cooperating and that they were going to stay off the bus that first day. I would like to say that what helped us to keep them off too was that the police department had decided that they would put a police on a motorcycle with a white cap who would accompany the buses and any of the blacks who wanted to get on. They would help them to get on without what they call "the goon squads" keeping them from riding. And that helped out the cause because those few blacks who were going to ride were afraid that the police who were following the buses would hurt them more than if they did ride. So they didn't ride, and as a result of it I would say that less than, well a very negligible number of riders rode that first day.
Mr. Bagley, J.H. Bagley, who was the manager of the bus company was a reasonable man because the Women's Political Council had gone to him many times when there were trouble spots, and he worked with us, and he tried as hard as he could to erase those things that were most trying for them. But they had a commission there. Sellers, who was a Police Commissioner, Gayle, the mayor, and Parks, whom the blacks had helped to put into office were very obstinate, and any giving at all where blacks were concerned. So they were the ones who remained staunch in, in, in their opinions that, that there should be no integration in the buses. And for the whole thirteen months that that boycott was in operation, there was not one confession that the Commissioner gave that would show that they were weakening in the segregation of Montgomery. It was only when the Supreme Court handed down the decision that there would be no more integration of buses did those people concede to their defeat was inevitable, and they gave in.
DID YOU EVER THINK THAT YOU WOULD HAVE TO CONTINUE, I MEAN THAT YOU WOULD GO ON FOREVER?
I knew it wouldn't. We had worked too hard, we the members of the Political Council. We had organized that thing. We had gone through it over and over in our minds, on papers, and even when the courts came into an awareness of the fact that the women had planned this bus boycott. They required the Secretary of the Women's Political Council to bring all the material of our minutes down to the courts so they could peruse them and see what we had planned. And of course, we had anticipated that. We had two sets of minutes, and the minute they said that we wanted to go to the court, went to the court, and they never knew that we had these planned. I never was in doubt a moment because I knew that it—that something had to give.
End of Jo Ann Robinson.