The Black Women Activists behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott
By Lava Thomas
My project, Mug Shot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, illuminates the under-acknowledged legacy of Black women’s activism through a series of portraits based on mug shots of women who were arrested during the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and ’56, the pivotal event that launched Dr. Martin Luther King’s leadership of the Civil Rights Movement.
The popular narrative of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is well known: Rosa Parks’s arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated Montgomery bus, and the ensuing year-long boycott led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the NAACP lawsuit which resulted in the Supreme Court ruling that deemed segregation on Montgomery buses unconstitutional. That narrative honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, whose life and work we reflect on today, but largely omits the Black women who initiated and organized the boycott.
This project aims to expand that narrative by centering the activist labor of Black women. I’m looking at this period through first-hand accounts of the women who organized the boycott, texts on gender and the Civil Rights movement, Black feminism and histories of women’s activism. Rosa Parks was not simply a seamstress too tired to give up her seat to a white passenger. Parks was a longtime secretary and investigator for the NAACP, investigating cases of racial and sexual terrorism against Black women for over a decade.
Jo Ann Robinson initiated the boycott, an English professor at Alabama State College and president of the Women’s Political Council. Robinson and the WPC organized a one-day boycott after Rosa Parks’s arrest, arranging for the distribution of over 50,000 handbills urging Black residents not to ride the bus. Ministers of Montgomery’s Black churches embraced and extended the action, and elected a young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association. But it was women who were the initiators, organizers, fundraisers, and chief strategists, along with the thousands of domestic workers who refused to ride the bus, financially crippling not only the bus company, but businesses in downtown Montgomery, who lost millions of dollars of revenue. The backlash was swift, with KKK bombings, state-sanctioned violence, and intimidation. An Alabama grand jury handed down over eighty indictments to boycott leaders for breaking Alabama’s boycott laws. When leaders learned that mass arrests were imminent, they dressed in their best and turned themselves in, riding together in groups to support one another, rather than suffer the humiliation of being arrested at their homes or places or employment.
Acting within the repressive limits of the mug shot, a photograph designed to remove traces of the sitter’s humanity, the women took control of their representation with their self-possession, their style, and their refusal to hang the booking numbers around their necks. They seized the moment of surrender and made it their own—choosing when and how they would be photographed as part of the criminal record. Transforming codes of criminality into representations of resistance, the portraits commemorate the women’s service and sacrifice.
With the exception of Parks, Robinson, and a few others, we know little more than the names of these women.
I chose drawing as a medium for this work for its accessibility. We have all used pencil and paper. The materiality is a metaphor for the fragility of this history, the ease with which it can be erased if it isn’t preserved. As drawings, the portraits have to be protected and treated with care, framed and kept out of direct sunlight to prevent yellowing and fading. Conceptually, the notion of labor is embedded in each drawing, with the accumulation of thousands of lines and strokes. The drawings are built in layers, in a process that is laborious and time consuming. The line is labor.
Last May, Angela Davis drew a direct line from the boycott women’s activism to the labor of current Black activist women. As the work of Stacey Abrams, Helen Butler, Felicia Davis, and so many others whose voter mobilization efforts flipped Georgia in both the presidential and Senate races attests, Black women’s political agency continues to be a powerful catalyst for change, a potent reminder that all of us have the power to shape the course of history. The recent seizure of the US Capitol by white extremists also reminds us that a collective, sustained, organized and disciplined response to radical white nationalism and domestic terrorism is ever urgent and necessary.
Centering African American Art History Initiative’s ongoing oral history project, the series On Making History explores how Black artists remember, record, and re-write history. Explore more oral histories here.
For more on Lava Thomas’s work, check out the online program The Black Index: Artist in Conversation.
Originally published by The Iris, 02.23.2021, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.