Women's Political Council
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The Women's Political Council, founded in Montgomery, Alabama, was an organization that was part of the African-American Civil Rights Movement.. Members included Mary Fair Burks, Jo Ann Robinson, Irene West, Thelma Glass, and Uretta Adair. The WPC was the first group to officially call for a boycott of the bus system during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, beginning in December 1955. They helped organize communications to get it started, as well as to support it, including giving people rides who were boycotting the buses. The African Americans of Montgomery upheld the boycott for more than a year.
It ended in late December 1956, after the United States Supreme Court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that the state and local laws for bus segregation were unconstitutional, and ordered the state to desegregate public transportation.
The WPC formed in 1946 as a civic organization for African-American professional women in the city of Montgomery, Alabama. It was inspired by the Atlanta Neighborhood Union. Many of its middle-class women were active in education; most of WPC's members were educators at Alabama State College or Montgomery's public schools. About forty women attended the first organizational meeting. Mary Fair Burks, who was head of Alabama State's English department, was the group's first president.1
The WPC's first undertaking was to register to vote, which was difficult as white administrators subjectively managed a literacy test and tried to prevent blacks from registering. All the WPC members eventually passed the test; they established classes to help other blacks fill out registration forms and pass the test
In 1950, Burks decided to resign from the presidency, while remaining active in the organization. Robinson succeeded Burks as president.
As president, she began to study the issue of bus segregation, which affected the many blacks who were the majority of riders on the city system. First, members appeared before the City Commission to report abuses on the buses, such as blacks who were first on the bus being required later to give up seats for whites as buses became crowded. The commission acted surprised but did nothing.
In 1953, Jo Ann Robinson and other local black leaders met with the three commissioners of Montgomery. They complained that the city did not hire any black bus drivers, said that segregation of seating was unjust, and that bus stops in black neighborhoods were farther apart than in white ones, although blacks were the majority of the riders. The commissioners refused to change anything. Robinson and other WPC members met with bus company officials on their own. The segregation issue was deflected, as bus company officials said that segregation was city and state law. The WPC achieved a small victory, as the bus company officials agreed to have the buses stop at every corner in black neighborhoods, as was the practice in white neighborhoods.
In May 1954, shortly after the Brown v. Board of Education United States Supreme Court decision was announced, Robinson wrote a letter to Mayor W. A. Gayle saying that there was growing support among local black organizations for a bus boycott.
By 1955, there was growing dissatisfaction with the segregated bus system. The WPC decided that when the right person got arrested, they would initiate a boycott. When Claudette Colvin, a fifteen-year-old high school student was arrested in March 1955, for refusing to give up her seat, the WPC and other local civil rights organizations began to discuss a boycott. When they discovered that the unmarried Colvin was pregnant, they did not want to use her as the point person, as she would not have commanded support among the religious and conservative blacks. Other women were also arrested for resisting bus segregation.
Rosa Parks, the secretary of the NAACP, was arrested in December 1955; she, the NAACP and the WPC agreed that she could be the lead for a boycott. Robinson was consulted by E.D. Nixon, president of the NAACP. The night of Parks’ arrest, Robinson called the other WPC leaders, and they agreed that this was the right time for a bus boycott.
Robinson stayed up all night copying 35,000 handbills by a mimeograph machine at Alabama State College to distribute the next day. She called students and arranged to meet them at elementary and high schools in the morning. She drove to the various schools to drop the handbills off to the students who would distribute them in the schools and ask students to take them home for their parents. The handbills asked blacks to boycott the buses the following Monday, December 5, in support of Parks.
By Friday night, word of a boycott had spread all over the city. That same night, local ministers and civil rights leaders held a meeting and announced the boycott for Monday. With some ministers hesitant to engage their congregations in a boycott, about half left the meeting in frustration. They decided to hold a mass meeting Monday night to decide if the boycott should continue.
The one-day boycott was so successful that the organizers met on Monday night and decided to continue. They established the Montgomery Improvement Association to organize the boycott and elected the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as president. Jo Ann Robinson served on the group’s executive board and edited their newsletter. In order to protect her position at Alabama State College and her colleagues, she stayed out of the limelight. Robinson and other WPC members helped sustain the boycott by providing car transportation for many boycotters.
On February 1, 1956, associated lawyers filed a civil suit, Browder v. Gayle, in the United States District Court, on behalf of five women who had each been arrested for defying bus segregation (one dropped out that month.) A three-judge panel ruled on June 13, 1956, that bus segregation was unconstitutional, and the case went to the US Supreme Court. It upheld the lower court ruling on December 17, 1956, and three days later ordered the state to desegregate the buses.
The boycott had demonstrated African-American organizing power and highlighted civil rights issues in the city. Its success helped further steps in the drive for civil rights.
- Burks, Mary Fair. "Women in the Montgomery Bus Boycott." Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers 1941-1965. Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods, eds. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993. 71-83. ISBN 0-253-20832-7
- Robinson, Jo Ann Gibson.The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson. David J. Garrow, ed. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1987. ISBN 0-87049-527-5
- "Women's Political Council." King Encyclopedia.