How One Courageous Black Household Worker Changed the Outcome of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
The following is an excerpt from the new book Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement by Premilla Nadasen (Beacon Press, 2015):
Georgia Gilmore, who moved to Montgomery in 1920, became a leading advocate for household laborers. She lived in Centennial Hill, a middleclass African American community with a thriving black business sector on Montgomery’s east side, near the state capitol. A large woman who weighed over three hundred pounds, Gilmore was a single mother of six. Like most black women in the South, she earned her living through her knowledge and skill as a domestic—although she did so in multiple settings. Gilmore worked as a nurse and a midwife, delivering babies in the black community. She was employed as a cook in a cafeteria and also a maid in private households. She put those skills to use during the Montgomery bus boycott, raising money, feeding demonstrators, and creating meeting spaces, yet her name is relatively unknown today.
Gilmore understood that household workers’ refusal to ride the buses was indispensable to the boycott’s success. “Because you see they were maids, cooks,” she said. “And they was the one that really and truly kept the bus running. And after the maids and the cooks stopped riding the bus, well the bus didn’t have any need to run.” Her support for the boycott was rooted in part in her own experiences on the city buses. As was typical for working-class black people in Montgomery, Gilmore didn’t own a car. She was a regular bus rider with few other transportation options. Gilmore shared her experience of riding on the city buses when she testified at the 1956 trial of Martin Luther King: “Many times I have been standing without any white people on the bus and have taken seats, and when the driver sees you he says, ‘You have to move because those seats aren’t for you Negroes.’” Gilmore’s elderly mother also encountered difficulties. Gilmore recounted one experience that not only demonstrated the callous disregard for her mother’s physical limitations, but the vicious racial insults that accompanied it: “She was an old person and it was hard for her to get in and out of the bus except the front door. The bus was crowded that evening with everybody coming home from work. She went to the front door to get on the bus, and this bus driver was mean and surly, and when she asked him if she could get in the front door he said she would have to go around and get in the back door, and she said she couldn’t get in, the steps were too high. He said she couldn’t go in the front door. He said, ‘You damn niggers are all alike. You don’t want to do what you are told. If I had my way I would kill off every nigger person.’
In October 1955, before Rosa Parks’s arrest, Gilmore had another in a long series of unpleasant encounters with city bus drivers, which prompted her to begin her own one-woman boycott. During Friday afternoon rush hour, Gilmore boarded a packed Oak Park bus. There were two white passengers; the rest were African Americans. Although she didn’t know the driver’s name, she recognized him. “This bus driver is tall, hair red, and has freckles, and wears glasses. He is a very nasty bus driver.” After she paid her fare, the driver told her to get off the bus and enter through the rear door. She pleaded with him to let her stand there, since she was already on the bus and most of the riders were African Americans in any case. The driver refused. “So, I got off the front door and went around the side of the bus to get in the back door, and when I reached the back door and was about to get on he shut the back door and pulled off, and I didn’t even ride the bus after paying my fare .So, I decided right then and there I wasn’t going to ride the busses any more. . . . And so I haven’t missed the busses because I really don’t have to ride them. . . . I haven’t returned to the busses—I walk.” This kind of individual protest was not unheard of among black women in Montgomery before the bus boycott.
The Club from Nowhere
A few months after her decision to stop riding the city buses, Gilmore heard a radio broadcast announcing the arrest of Rosa Parks. At the time, she was working at a white-owned segregated restaurant in Montgomery, the National Lunch Company. After a hugely successful one-day boycott of Montgomery’s buses the Monday after Parks’s arrest, a community meeting was convened to discuss a course of action. Gilmore was one of several thousand people who attended the evening gathering at Holt Street Baptist Church. Organizers had to set up speakers to accommodate the overflow crowd. Gilmore was moved by what she heard, especially the speech by the young Reverend Martin Luther King, who declared in his address, “There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.” Gilmore was impressed: “I never cared too much for preachers, but I listened to him preach that night. And the things he said were things I believed in.” The community members in attendance overwhelmingly supported the decision to continue the boycott indefinitely under the leadership of the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA).
Gilmore, of course, had no intention of riding the buses. She was fed up, and welcomed the opportunity to engage in collective protest. She explained: “Sometime I walked by myself and sometime I walked with different people, and I began to enjoy walking, because for so long I guess I had this convenient ride until I had forgot about how well it would be to walk. I walked a mile, maybe two miles, some days. Going to and from. A lot of times, some of the young whites would come along and they would say, ‘Nigger, don’t you know it’s better to ride the bus than it is to walk?’ And we would say, ‘No, cracker, no. We rather walk.’ I was the kind of person who would be fiery. I didn’t mind fighting with you.”
The Monday- and Thursday-night meetings, part organizing committee, part solidarity rally, became a regular occurrence in Montgomery as the boycott dragged on. The large crowds, led by middle-class ministers but made up overwhelmingly of black working-class women, were enthusiastic and lively. Gilmore showed up almost without fail to the gatherings.
As became clear early on, the boycott was expensive to run and maintain. Coordination was a massive undertaking and included fundraising, publicity, legal representation, security patrols, as well as the providing of alternative transportation in the form of an organized carpool for protesters. The Montgomery Improvement Association needed money to operate the carpool and assist people who had been arrested, fined, or fired for participation in the protest. The carpool was an extensive citywide network with three hundred vehicles and forty-two pickup and drop-off points. Coordinators rented or borrowed vehicles, hired drivers, and paid for gas and insurance. Gilmore looked for a way that she could best help out. According to Johnnie Carr, a member of the Women’s Political Council and longtime friend of Rosa Parks: “Georgia just got it into her mind that she was going to raise money for the Movement. And if Georgia was raising money, she was doing it through food.” Gilmore recounted: “We collected $14 from amongst ourselves and bought some chickens, bread and lettuce, started cooking and made up a bundle of sandwiches for the big rally. We had a lot of our club members who were hard-pressed and couldn’t give more than a quarter or half-dollar, but all knew how to raise money. We started selling sandwiches and went from there to selling full dinners in our neighborhoods and we’d bake pies and cakes for people.”
Gilmore founded the Club from Nowhere, an organization of maids, service workers, and cooks seeking to aid the boycott. The name was an attempt to shield members from the consequences of openly supporting the boycott. “Some colored folks or Negroes could afford to stick out their necks more than others because they had independent incomes,” Gilmore explained, “but some just couldn’t afford to be called ‘ring leaders’ and have the white folks fire them. So when we made our financial reports to the MIA officers we had them record us as the money coming from nowhere. ‘The Club from Nowhere.’” Only Gilmore knew who made and bought the food and who donated money. The underground network of cooks went door-to-door selling sandwiches, pies, and cakes, and collecting donations. The proceeds were then turned over to boycott leaders. Donations came from whites as well as blacks. That “was very nice of the people because so many of the people who didn’t attend the mass meetings would give the donation to help keep the carpool going.”
The campaign spread to other neighborhoods. According to Gilmore: “Well, in order to make the mass meeting and the boycott be a success and that keep the car pool running, we decided that the peoples on the south side would get a club and the peoples on the west side would get a club.” The various groups competed, each trying to raise more money than the other. “When we’d raise as much as $300 for a Monday night rally, then we knowed we was on our way for $500 on Thursday night.” Gilmore offered the money at the Monday-night mass meetings to wild cheers and thunderous applause.
When Gilmore’s boss at the National Lunch Company learned of her activism, she was fired and blacklisted. Unfortunately, retaliation was not uncommon during the boycott; both E. D. Nixon and Martin Luther King had their homes bombed, and Rosa Parks lost her job at the department store where she worked as a seamstress. Gilmore had little choice but to turn these impediments into opportunities. Martin Luther King encouraged her to cook out of her own home and even helped her financially. When the city tried to shut her down, King helped her remodel her kitchen to meet city standards. Gilmore awoke at four o’clock in the morning and, in her small kitchen, began preparations to make stuffed pork chops, meat loaf, barbecued ribs, fried fish, spaghetti in meat sauce, collard greens and black-eyed peas, stuffed bell peppers, corn muffins, bread pudding, and sweet potato pies. She cooked lunch daily out of her kitchen for people involved in the boycott, including King. Although she had no restaurant seating, people showed up at her house to eat, squeezing around the dining room table or sitting and eating on the couch. King, who called her Tiny, frequented her house, often bringing guests or holding clandestine meetings at her home. According to Reverend Al Dixon: “Dr. King needed a place where he could go. You know, he couldn’t go just anywhere and eat. He needed someplace where he could not only trust the people around him but also trust the food. And that was Georgia’s.” Gilmore’s dining room table became a meeting space connecting blacks and whites, working class and middle class in the civil rights movement: professors, politicians, lawyers, clerical workers, police officers. She served such well-known figures as Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Lyndon Johnson, and John Kennedy. In this context, cooking became a conduit for political connections.
Reverend Thomas E. Jordan, pastor of Lilly Baptist Church, reflected on Gilmore’s role in the boycott: “I think Georgia Teresa Gilmore was one of the unsung heroines of the Civil Rights Movement. She was not a formally educated woman, but she had that mother wit. She had a tough mind but a tender heart. You know, Martin Luther King often talked about the ground crew, the unknown people who work to keep the plane in the air. She was not really recognized for who she was, but had it not been for people like Georgia Gilmore, Martin Luther King Jr. would not have been who he was.”
Like other domestic workers, Gilmore was less constrained by social niceties than movement leaders. As Alabama State professor Benjamin Simms, who served as head of the MIA’s transportation committee, commented: “She’s a sweet woman, but don’t rub her the wrong way. Would you believe that this charming woman once beat up a white man who had mistreated one of her children. He owned a grocery store, and Mrs. Gilmore marched into his place and wrung him out.”
Black domestic workers like Gilmore were service workers with a particular set of skills that could be utilized for political mobilization. Thus they exhibited the political agency that Claudia Jones anticipated. Their struggle, however, was not for class overthrow, as the black radical feminists of the 1930s and 1940s predicted, but transformation of the power structure, on city buses and in their workplaces. They sought to build cross-class alliances and carve out spaces of autonomy and mutual respect for the South’s working-class black women. Household workers were the quintessential “outsiders within,” to use Patricia Hill Collins’s term—privy to the most intimate details of white family life yet not a part of that family. Their social status and proximity to the white domestic sphere enabled them to wield a different kind of power in engaging in community action. Their intimate relationship with white households granted them access and knowledge unavailable to others. During the Montgomery bus boycott, maids surreptitiously gathered information from the white community. Bernice Barnett argues: “The maids, cooks, and service workers of the [Club from Nowhere] also had access to information in the homes of their White employers. As they went invisibly about their domestic work, the [members of the Club] were alert to news about the strategies and tactics of the White opposition.” Domestic workers used the very elements of domestic work—their marginalization, their insider status, their access to the white domestic sphere, their culinary skills—as a basis for subversive activity.They were instrumental in unsettling the white community and pushing for more egalitarian race relations. They made clear that the boycott was not only about equal rights, but about respect. Their claim for respect and political engagement posed a fundamental challenge to the long-standing “mammy” stereotype. Even though they had few labor rights, black domestic workers possessed power within their workplace that enabled them to exercise leverage over their employers.
Excerpted from Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement by Premilla Nadasen (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.