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The youngest of twelve children, Jo Ann Robinson was born in Culloden, Georgia. She was the first college graduate in her family, and later earned a master’s degree. In 1949, she moved to Montgomery, Alabama to teach English at Alabama State College. In 1955, following the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person, Robinson distributed flyers calling on African Americans to boycott city buses. The Montgomery Improvement Association, led by Martin Luther King Jr., appointed her to their executive board. In June of 1956, segregated seating was declared unconstitutional by Alabama’s federal district court.
When you learn to move like someone always hungry and hollow, it gets easy not to overflow the borders of your body. Easy not to be yourself. Turned inward and scrubbed clean. But not too clean. Never better. Never better than them.
It was only one paragraph, a name and an arrest, but it made Jo Ann feel full. If she ate one letter a day, tearing the newspaper into bits, it could last her weeks.
After it got dark, she went to Alabama State’s business department to see John. She knew the chairman using school property for something like this could lead to anything. So she hands the paper to him, only her eyes speaking. His immediate nod fills her up even more.
It was the empty seats that did it. That momentary feeling she was safe. That she could have this one thing. This one small respite. Not taking it away. Not stealing it. Just climbing onto a bus and sitting down in a seat occupied by no one. Years have passed but the bus driver’s rage, as immediate as John’s nod, took every good feeling away from her. She was going to be humiliated. She was going to be hurt. And it was going to be done by a man who thought her incapable of either emotion. A snapping of her back into place, her place, hungry and hollow, a stamp across her forehead. And she let it happen. As the driver advanced towards her, Jo Ann fled. Scraped her knuckles, her knees. Fled as if she had no right to be.
When night ends and the bright hits your eyes, sadness doesn’t start over again. Each day and the next and the next it builds, weighing on your heart until each beat hurts, sending little slivers of pain up and down your arms, behind your eyes, pressing, pressing, falling drop by drop, a puddle in your hands. As she walked home that day, years ago, eyes averted from every bus stop, she knew the pain would get worse until it felt like nothing at all. Until it was all she ever expected to feel. All she deserved. But that little piece, that little shard of all she really was had slipped away, hidden itself in that empty space under her heart and waited. Waited for now. She feels it crawl out, tentatively at first then running, running, sparking in her eyes. She sees it at the edges of her vision as she circles the mimeograph’s pressure roller, the ink staining each leaflet like fingerprints. She isn’t sure how many blacks live in Montgomery, but doesn’t stop turning until she reaches 50,000.
“If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue.
The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or mother.
Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday.”
The next day, Jo Ann presses the tape to the edges of each flyer, running her fingers down them quickly, the heat spreading throughout her body. She turns and looks at telephone poles, bus stops, brick walls, her words flashing like neon.
The moment feels brittle, like it could just break if she so much as breathes too loud. She wants to suspend it, and make it end, both yearning for and afraid of what happens after. It might be good, it might be bad, but it will be different and that is enough. So she waits, knowing after years she can spare another moment. Just one. Jo Ann waits, hand over her fully intact heart, praying she isn’t the only one holding her breath.