Welcome to the third entry in our Montgomery Bus Boycott Turns 60 Series. Domestic worker Georgia Gilmore was one of the little-known organizers and activists in the boycott, which is why, during Women’s History Month, we are putting the spotlight on her. Gilmore raised money for the boycott and founded the organization Club from Nowhere so that black donators could give money to the cause anonymously without drawing unwanted attention from their white employers and losing their jobs. She cooked out of her own home for people involved in the boycott after she was fired from her own job because of her activism. As this excerpt from Premilla Nadasen's Household Workers Unite shows, Dr. King would not have become the leading civil rights leader he was without the behind-the-scenes work of people like Gilmore who kept the cause afloat.
Georgia Gilmore 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.”
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.”
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. 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.
About the Author
Premilla Nadasen is an associate professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University, and is the author of several books, including Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement and the award-winning Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States. A longtime scholar-activist, Nadasen works closely with domestic workers’ rights organizations, for which she has written policy briefs and served as an expert academic witness. She also writes about household labor, social movements, and women’s history for Ms., the Progressive Media Project, and other media outlets. Follow her on Twitter at @premillanadasen.