The Women’s Political Council

The Women’s Political Council: Black Women at the Vanguard of Social Activism in 1950s Montgomery, Alabama

During a 15-year period, between 1946 and 1960, Black middle class and professional women in Montgomery, Alabama, organized the Women’s Political Council (WPC) as a vehicle to create social and political change.  These highly respected and very capable women executed a program of political education, they developed strategies to challenge racial discrimination, and they worked to prepare the Black community to be full participants in the political life of their communities.  In 1955, as part of the WPC’s strategy to challenge racial discrimination, the organization registered its greatest contribution when it initiated a boycott of the Montgomery city bus system, a protests that is credited with jump starting the direct-action phase of the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement.  

WPC Origins 

In 1946, Mary Fair Burks, chair of the English Department at Alabama State College (now Alabama State University), organized an African American alternative to the all-White League of Women Voters.  That year, Burks accused Montgomery police officers with wrongfully assigning fault to her in a traffic incident involving a White woman.  In an era where people of color could not expect fair treatment by law enforcement, Professor Burks protested.  In response officers clubbed and then arrested her. When Burks appeared in court, she was quickly convicted and fined.  In the aftermath, Professor Burks sought solace at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Reverend Vernon Johns delivered a sermon that encouraged the dispirited academic to channel her frustrations into action.  When Fair Burks left the church, she summoned a network of fifty colleagues, clubwomen, sorority sisters, and friends. With their support, Burks organized the Women’s Political Council to address major issues facing the Black community. 

The 40 women who responded to Burks call became the founding members of the Women’s Political Council.  Among these women were, Cynthia Alexander, Elizabeth Arrington, Sadie Brooks, Albertine Campbell, Mary Cross, Faustine Dunn, Frizzette Lee, Jule Lewis, Thelma Morris, Geraldine Nesbitt, Ive Pettus, Zoeline Pierce, Louise Streety, Cleonia Taylor, Ruth Vines, Irene West, Bertha Williams, and the wife of the Alabama State College president, Portia Trenholm. 

Professor Burks’ organized the WPC around three approaches, first was political action, including voter registration initiatives.  The women began a process of interviewing candidates who were seeking political office.  The women then endorsed those individuals who were most sympathetic to the organization’s agenda.  The second approach centered around racial discrimination, particularly addressing unfair practices on the city busses, and the exclusion of African Americans from almost every one of the city’s eleven parks.  Finally, the women agreed to focus on democracy and literacy, with the intent of helping high school students become familiar with how a “Democracy,” or more specifically, a Representative Republic was supposed to work.  The women expanded their reach to include teaching adults to-read and write well enough to fulfill the literacy requirement of a difficult voter registration process created to exclude them. 

Burks, as a member of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was asked by her pastor to chair the Political Action Committee, where she worked alongside  ASU political scientist Dr. James Pierce, and long-time political organizer and ASU librarian Rufus Lewis.  In fact, Burks implemented a strategy to expand the organization’s political network when she instructed WPC members to return to their own places of worship, and take charge of the political action committees at their respective churches. 

Under Burks, WPC women demanded no more from the community than they were willing to give of themselves.  Despite the many voter registration obstacles, WPC women insisted every member of the organization was to become a registered voter.  After accomplishing this herculean task, the women used various churches to hold weekly literacy classes, and they provided instructions to both individuals and to groups, providing careful instruction on how to successfully complete the city’s lengthy voter registration process.  

As the organization grew in prestige and popularity, the WPC membership expanded to include 300 women.  The leadership divided the organization into three groups, naming the original ASU centered group after 19th century suffragist, Susan B. Anthony.  The second group headed by Catherine Neal Johnson was named for the Old Testament heroine, Deborah.  The third group led by Annie Jackson was named after Norma Boyd, one of sixteen founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, a Black Greek Letter sorority organized at Howard University in 1908.  Together, these women worked to improve the conditions experienced by Black people in Montgomery. 

The WPC Agenda 

Professor Burks intended for the WPC “to inspire Negroes to live above mediocrity, to elevate their thinking, to fight juvenile and adult delinquency, to register and vote, and to improve their status as a group.” 

In 1954 the Alabama Tribune identified 1,000 African American registered voters in Montgomery County.  White women in the League of Women’s Voters, who were sympathetic to WPC goals, invited White candidates to provide policy positions for their African American counterparts in the WPC.  Mary Fair Burks, and others among the WPC leadership then worked to establish partnerships with African American groups, including with E. D. Nixon and his Progressive Democrats, and with Rufus Lewis and his Citizens Steering Committee.  Together, Black women and Black men decided which candidates to endorse for upcoming elections, and then employed a bloc vote to tip the scales in favor of the candidates who promised to address the problems facing Black people in Montgomery.  

In addition, the women launched an ambitious initiative called Youth City, which was modeled after an annual mock election held for White students at the all-White Lanier High School.  The WPC program took place at Alabama State College during two-days.  Students from the city’s two Black high schools, in cooperation with principals from the respective schools, were involved in this city-wide mock election.  Participating students announced their platforms on the steps of City Hall, the women arranged for WRMA Radio to cover the campaign, and student candidates also appeared on WCOV Television.  In 1955, Rev. Martin Luther King provided the invocation at the opening session, while both E. D. Nixon and Rufus Lewis were also participants.  For professor Burks, Youth City was a “subversive” activity carried-out during a period of general Black disenfranchisement.  She believed that by teaching students’ what democracy could and should mean, Youth City was effectively preparing a generation of Black people to vote, and to hold elective office.  

The WPC regularly petitioned the 3-man City Commission to redress long-standing grievances.  In the face of rampant police brutality the WPC joined a multi-organizational lobbying effort.  In 1953, advocacy from these organizations coupled with their ability to deliver a small but decisive bloc vote, prompted the newly elected City of Commissioners to hire Black police officers to patrol Black neighborhoods.  The WPC also appeared before the Commission to oppose the city’s practice of maintaining 8 municipal parks for the exclusive use of White citizens, and one public park for African American use.  In response to WPC complaints, the City Commission began allowing African Americans, who were on their way to work for White employers, to walk through the parks.  After the WPC repeatedly asked the city to improve park and playground facilities for Black youth, the city appointed an African American to the Parks and Recreation Board.  African American bus riders formed Another area of persistent complaints.  But here is where the negotiations became more achamonous.  Before 1955, on at least 6 occasions the WPC appeared before the City Commissioners to condemn the behavior of Montgomery bus drivers.  Jo Ann Robinson, Mary Fair Burks, and Jewell Lewis were among the WPC members who appeared at these meetings.  In response to their complaints improvements were made, the Mayor asked bus drivers to be more courteous to Black riders, and he instructed the bus company to have drivers stop at each block in the Black neighborhoods, in the same way drivers stopped at each block in White neighborhoods.  Progress was fleeting, as drivers reverted back to their traditional practices and Black  riders again began to complain about new and even more egregious practices.  Even if reforms were short lived, the WPC developed a reputation as one of the city’s most effective advocates for the rights of Black people.  

Jo Ann Robinson and the Montgomery Bus Boycott 

 Professor Jo Ann Robinson, who took a position in the English Department at Alabama State College in the fall of 1949, joined Professor Burks in the WPC along with other ASU faculty at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.  There, she connected with a network of self-assured middle class Black women.  Robinson emerged from this network of accomplished women to become president of the WPC.  In December of 1950, while taking the city bus to the municipal airport, Robinson had an encounter that would prove prophetic to her administration.  The driver stopped the bus, approached Robinson and startled her out of a daydream by demanding that she move to the rear of an almost empty bus.  Robinson leaped to her feet and boulted from the bus. Tearful, Robinson was able to contact a friend who picked her up and drove her to the airport.  Upon her return, Robinson listened as many of the women she knew shared their own traumatic bus experiences.  Jo Ann Robinson responded by making bus discrimination a focal point of the WPC.

At mid-century, White Montgomery moved to codify the system of segregation.  The Montgomery City Code of 1952 stipulated that segregation would be enforced on city buses, at food establishments, and at gaming outlets where: “Negroes and white persons (were) not to play together… in any game of cards, dice, dominoes or checkers.” The city ordinance stipulated that segregation be observed at toilet facilities, pool and billiard rooms, taxicabs, and at theaters and shows. The city’s segregation law called for the separation of the races in “any room, hall, theater, house, auditorium, yard, court, ball park, public park, or other indoor or outdoor place to which both white persons and negroes are admitted.” In addition, segregation was to be enforced at “any theatrical performance, picture, exhibition, speech, educational or entertainment program or athletic contest of any kind whatsoever.”

Facing emphatic White support for racial segregation, the WPC did not seek to attack the seperation of the races head-on; they only sought to make the system of segregation more equitable.  Under Robinson, the WPC continued to seek relief before the City Commission.  Robinson led a delegation of women to request that busses stop at every corner in Black neighborhoods, just as they did in White areas.  The women also took the opportunity to complain about bus drivers who habitually cursed at Black riders, calling them “coons,” “baboons,” and “niggers.” Almost daily, stories made their way through an informal communication network where “some Black man, women or child,” was abused for not having correct change or for talking back to the bus driver.  In 1953 alone, there were 30 bus complaints lodged with the WPC.  In one appearance before the Commissioners, WPC women objected to the practice of having Black people pay their fare at the front of the bus, and so as not to “walk over” White passengers, disembark and reboard using the rear door.  The women complained of Black people having to stand over empty seats reserved for Whites only.  WPC members Sadie Brooks and Zolena Price also made an appearance before the Commissioners, in this instance they complained about fare increases.

On May 21, 1954, four days after the Supreme Court struck down school segregation in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, Jo Ann Robinson wrote a letter to Mayor William Gayle on behalf of the WPC, and twenty-five other organizations.  In that letter, Professor Robinson insisted that if conditions did not improve for the city’s Black bus riders, who made up the 70 percent of the ridership, there would be a boycott.  

The movement appeared to crystallize in March of 1955, after 15-year-old high school student Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give her seat to a White man. In an appearance before City Commissioners, the WPC’s Jo Ann Robinson, Mary Fairburks, Irene West, and Uretta Adair, were joined by Rufus Lewis, E. D. Nixon, as well as members of the Ministerial Association, including Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The group represented a united front in the aftermath of the Colvin arrest.  Here again, the women threaten a boycott of city busses if changes were not made.  

Talk of a boycott surfaced again in April, after 77-year-old ASC student Aurelia Browder, refused to give up her seat.  Despite protestations, the arrest of Black women continued unabated, in October another teenager, this time Mary Louise Smith was arrested.  As discussions of a boycott intensified in the wake of the latest arrests, women in the WPC began to draw up boycott plans; they drafted a boycott statement, and they discussed the logistics of executing a boycott.

On Thursday December 1, after the arrest of Rosa Parks, Robinson met in the basement of Dexter Avenue Church with WPC members Mary Fair Burks, Irene West, and Eretta Adair.  The women agreed to a boycott, and then approved language for a boycott announcement.  After a call from Jo Ann Robinson, E.D. Nixon urged a group of mostly Black ministers to meet and discuss the proposed boycott.  The WPC met at the same time in the same church, and in separate rooms the women the men agreed to support the boycott.  Robinson recruited two of her students and at around midnight made her way to the campus of Alabama State College, where they produced thousands of fliers calling for a one-day boycott of the city busses.  The next morning, Robinson, her students, and members of the WPC, began distributing the fliers across Montgomery.  Later that evening a second meeting occurred at Mt. Zion AME Zion Church. A new organization was created with the name Montgomery Improvement Association, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was selected as its’ president. With Black ministers now fully on board, fliers were distributed at Sunday church.  Moreover, E. D. Nixon strategically leaked word of the boycott to the Montgomery Advertiser, and a front-page story appeared in the Sunday edition. 

Nearly the entire Black community observed the boycott, and on that December 5th night, 5,000 Black supporters attended a citywide mass meeting.  Where those in attendance endorse the leadership of the MIA, and vowed to continue the protest until their demands for better treatment were met.  King, as the newly designated MIA president, tapped WPC member Maude Ballou to serve as his personal secretary.  The WPC’s Erna Dungee was elected to serve as the MIA’s Financial Secretary, while the WPC’s Martha Johnson became the MIA’s secretary-clerk.  King also tasked Jo Ann Robinson with editing the MIA newsletter, and Hazel Gregory, another WPC member, took on the responsibility of running the MIA office.  Professor Robinson and A. W. West were also drafted to serve on the 35 member MIA Executive Board, and the two women sat with King on the 12 person MIA negotiating team.  In February, when the city indicted 89 boycott leaders for violating a state anti-boycott law, the prominent role played by Robinson and West landed them in jail, alongside WPC member Uretta Adair. 

After a year-long boycott, bus segregation in Montgomery was declared unconstitutional in the Browder vs. Gayle case. Here, the United States Supreme Court upheld an earlier federal district court ruling, outlawing segregation on Montgomery public transportation system.  Through the boycott, the combination of nonviolence, mass mobilization, and litigation, drew the city’s Black community together, catapulted Rev. King onto the national stage, and ushered in a new and dramatic direct-action phase in American’s long civil rights struggle.  

The Purge and the End of the WPC

The success of the boycott, however, focused attention on the movement leaders and their respective organizations.  To protect the WPC from a state subpoena, the women destroyed their administrative records.  Tightening scrutiny, however, forced WPC women to shy away from activism, thereby diminishing membership in the organization.  In addition, Mary Fair Burks and Jo Ann Robinson were forced to leave Alabama State College, when state investigators connected a dozen professors to the growing civil rights movement. While Burks went on to teach literature at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Jo Ann Robinson taught for a short period at Grambling College in Louisiana, and then spent the remainder of her career in the Los Angeles public school system.  Meanwhile, in Montgomery, the WPC disbanded shortly after the 1960 college purge. 

From 1946 to 1960, the Women’s Political Council organized around issues of social justice and racial equality.  The WPC attracted women in key positions at various institutions, businesses, and churches.  The women then focused on political literacy, they partnered with both Black and White organizations to vet political candidates, they exposed Black students to the innerworkings of electoral politics, and they prepared Black adults to complete the complex voting registration process.  These women also addressed quality of life issues, challenging City Commissioners to provide recreational access for Black juveniles, and lobbying the City to hire Black police officers.  Finally, the WPC culminated their long battle over bus discrimination by initiating a boycott.  During the bus protest, WPC women assumed roles in the MIA that proved critical to carrying out the year-long campaign.  Even while the positions filled by WPC women conformed to gender norms of the 1950s, the women who assumed these posts made the day to day operation of the MIA possible, and by extension, their efforts proved crucial to the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  

The WPC disbanded around 1960, however, these women demonstrated the power of collective action, they illustrated the efficacy of dogged determination, and the women illustrated possibilities for a new generation of social and political activists.