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Sat, 03.02.1946

The Women’s Political Council is Formed

The Woman’s Political Council

*The Woman’s Political Council (WPC) was organized on this date in 1946. Founded in Montgomery, Alabama, it was an organization that was an early force active in the 20th-century American Civil Rights movement that was formed to address the racial issues in the city.

WPC's founding members included Mary Fair BurksJo Ann Robinson, Irene West, Thelma Glass, and Euretta 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. The group led efforts in the early 1950s to secure better treatment for Black bus passengers, and in December 1955, it initiated the thirteen-month bus boycott.

The WPC was organized by Mary Burks, the chairperson of the English department at Alabama State College, and 40 other women. The WPC was a political organization composed of Alabama State College faculty members and the wives of black professional men throughout the city. The Atlanta Neighborhood Union inspired it. Many of its middle-class women were active in education; most of WPC's members were educators at area colleges or Montgomery's public schools. The organization targeted Montgomery's small population of Black middle-class women, encouraging their civic involvement. About forty women attended the first organizational meeting.

Burks, the group's first president, decided to form the organization after she was arrested after a traffic dispute with a white woman. The group's initial purposes were to foster women's involvement in civic affairs, offset voter suppression through citizenship education, and aid women victims of rape or assault. Many Blacks were illiterate due to centuries of oppression and poverty; they sometimes failed the literacy test they were forced to take to vote. Other times, they were told they had come to the wrong location for registration or come on the wrong date. One goal of the WPC was to teach adults to read and write well enough to fulfill the literacy requirements for voting. One of its most successful programs was an annual event called Youth City, which taught Black high school students about politics and government and "what democracy could and should mean." During election campaigns, the WPC worked with the white-only League of Women Voters to inform Black citizens about political candidates.

In 1949, Jo Ann Robinson, a newly hired English professor at Alabama State College, joined the council. Her firsthand experiences with segregated bus seating prompted Robinson to succeed Burks as WPC president in 1950 and shift the council's primary focus to challenging the seating policy. Within a month, they had over a hundred members. They had members in every elementary, junior, and senior high school. They organized from federal and state, and local jobs; Wherever there were more than ten blacks employed, they had a member there. Under her leadership, the council grew to over 200 members and expanded to three chapters in different city areas. Eventually, there were around three hundred members, and all of them were registered to vote.

WPC began to study the issue of bus segregation, which affected the many Blacks who were most riders in 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 Montgomery, Black women especially were regularly humiliated by the bus service. Robinson sat down in the white section of a city bus one day without thinking. She was brought to tears by the bus driver, who cursed her out for sitting there. The Women's political council was formed because of these indignities.

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, the dissatisfaction with the segregated bus system grew. The WPC decided that they would initiate a boycott when the right person got arrested.

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. Colvin's arrest and conviction angered and unified the Black community. Still, 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.  

Rosa Parks, the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, was arrested in December 1955; the NAACP and the WPC agreed that she could lead a boycott. At a meeting of about fifty people in the basement of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a part of the 1965 historic route of the Selma to Montgomery trial, on December 2, 1955, Parks first told the story of her arrest, and the group decided to mount a bus boycott. Participants initially decided to have a one-day boycott on Monday, December 5. Still, because the boycott that day was so successful, discussion of continuing it began at a meeting afterward at the church since roughly 70 percent of Montgomery's bus passengers were Black, and most stayed off the buses.

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 in the morning at elementary and high schools. 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. By Friday night, word of a boycott had spread throughout 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 frustrated. They held 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. Jo Ann Robinson served on the group's executive board and edited their newsletter. She stayed out of the limelight to protect her position at Alabama State College and her colleagues. 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 success of the boycott and the rise of the Montgomery Improvement Association contributed to the organization's decline. The MIA was created to direct the boycott. As a result, the WPC leadership role in the Black community was diminished. Younger women reinvigorated the council, guided by older members serving as role models. Robinson stated in her memoir, "Members felt that young, concerned women, with their futures ahead, would benefit by the WPC and that we would help them to organize and select goals and directions for their future." Information is not available on how the younger women became involved in the later civil rights movement in Montgomery and elsewhere.

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