Jo Ann Robinson was an English professor at Alabama State College in the 1950s who fought for changes on Montgomery’s segregated buses well before the arrest of Rosa Parks.
When Parks was arrested in December 1955, Robinson spread the word through Montgomery’s Black community that the time had arrived for a long-anticipated boycott of the bus system.
Robinson, working overnight with help from another Alabama State professor and students, wrote, mimeographed, and distributed 52,500 leaflets flyers urging Black people to stay off the buses for a day. The idea caught on and grew into the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a year-long campaign that broke the segregated system known for abusing and humiliating Black riders.
Today, Alabama State University rededicated the former Bibb Graves Hall in the heart of its Montgomery campus as Jo Ann Robinson Hall.
Civil rights attorney Fred D. Gray, a 1951 ASU graduate and the legal counsel for the boycott, told the crowd at today’s ceremony about meetings with Robinson to plan the boycott and described her as an essential leader of the effort.
“If she had not done what she did and been insisting on it, there would have been no Montgomery bus boycott at that time,” Gray said.
ASU President Quinton Ross noted at today’s ceremony that Easter would have been Robinson’s 110th birthday. Robinson died at age 80 in 1992.
“Today we are here to sing her praise and to let the world know that Jo Ann Robinson’s name deserves to be honored along with other icons with which we are all familiar, many of whom like Professor Robinson held significant ties to this great university,” Ross said.
In 2020, Ross commissioned a committee to research and identify ASU buildings named after leaders or avowed members of racist organizations.
Bibb Graves was governor of Alabama from 1927 to 1931 and from 1935 to 1939. Graves won his first term with the backing of the Ku Klux Klan and was grand cyclops of the Klan in Montgomery, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama.
Following a recommendation from Ross, the ASU Board of Trustees voted in September 2021 to rename Bibb Graves Hall for Robinson.
The three story-building with a bell tower was built in 1928 and is the oldest residency hall on the campus. It was renovated in 2008.
The move by ASU comes after several other state universities renamed buildings that were named after Graves.
In February, the University of Alabama renamed Bibb Graves Hall in honor of Autherine Lucy Foster, who was the first Black student at the university.
Troy State University renamed Bibb Graves Hall in 2020, rededicating it as John Robert Lewis Hall in honor of the Pike County native, civil rights champion and late Georgia congressman.
Last year, Jacksonville State University renamed its administration building that was named after Graves.
The Alabama Legislature passed a law in 2017 to prohibit the removal of historical monuments in place for 40 years or more and the renaming of historical buildings and streets. Several Alabama cities, including Birmingham and Mobile, have paid $25,000 fines for moving Confederate monuments.
ASU President Ross said the university is prepared to defend its decision to rename the residency hall.
“This is a historic day, and I think it’s been revolutionary across the county in terms of what has been happening with replacement of monuments and emphasis on social justice and equality right now,” Ross said. “While there is a law on the books, like many other laws, should that become an issue, we stand ready to defend our position. But with all the changes that are taking place within the state, within the country, I think this is a welcome change.”
Alabama State University Archivist Howard Robinson told the crowd at the dedication ceremony how Jo Ann Robinson came to play an important role in Montgomery and the civil rights movement. She was born in 1912 in Georgia and was the youngest of 12 children in her family. She excelled at school and earned degrees from what is now Fort Valley State University and Atlanta University.
In 1949, Robinson was recruited from a college in Texas to teach at ASU. Robinson, who was 33, was invigorated by the readiness of the Black community in Montgomery to challenge the Jim Crow system, according to the archivist Robinson. An encounter with a verbally abusive Montgomery bus driver during her first year in the city helped strengthen her resolve to be an advocate.
Robinson joined and became the president of the Women’s Political Counsel, which took its concerns about the bus system, police abuses, and other problems to city leaders. Robinson joined and became a leader at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Rev. Martin Luther King would later become pastor and the most visible leader of the bus boycott.
The archivist Robinson said Jo Ann Robinson wrote a letter to the mayor of Montgomery in May 1954, four days after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, threatening a bus boycott.
But humiliating seating policies and abuses of the Black riders continued and led to several more arrests of Black women before Parks’ arrest on Dec. 1, 1955. That’s when Robinson printed and distributed the leaflets and was involved in the work with Gray and others to help launch the boycott.
“In response, Montgomery’s Black population demonstrated almost universal support for the boycott,” Howard Robinson said. “Robinson would continue her activism during the year-long boycott.”
Howard Robinson said Jo Ann Robinson “nurtured amongst her students a sense of assertive discontent” and was one of a dozen ASU professors forced to leave the college by the State Board of Education in 1960.
After leaving ASU, Robinson taught for a year at Grambling College in Louisiana, now Grambling State University. She then moved to Los Angeles, where she worked in the public school system until she retired in 1976, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama.