For a generation, Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and other lawyers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had pursued litigation through federal courts challenging racial segregation. Precedent upon precedent, the NAACP legal juggernaut won a succession of court battles in the 1940s that advanced black voting rights and desegregation of public postgraduate education. The NAACP legal reform strategy culminated in the Brown v. Board of Education decision of May 17, 1954, declaring public school segregation unconstitutional.
Four days after the unanimous Supreme Court ruling, an English professor at Alabama State College in Montgomery wrote a letter to the mayor urging him to accept minor reforms to improve the treatment of black passengers on the city's segregated buses. Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, president of the Women's Political Council, warned him that a number of black organizations were considering a boycott of buses if changes were not made. She had been directly lobbying the city commissioners to remedy bus inequities since she became head of the WPC four years before. Although she claimed to oppose such "forceful measures" as a bus boycott, she was a lightning rod for the community's rising sentiment for direct action. Indeed, that spring her own students at all-black Alabama State, including seventeen-year-old freshman Richard Nelson, had started their own bus boycott. Students had thrown bricks and bottles at buses and physically removed riders. According to Nelson, she had tried to discourage them from boycotting.1