Updated: Feb 16
In 1955, a thirty-six year old single mother of six boarded a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. After she dropped her coins into the fare box, the White bus driver told Georgia Gilmore she needed to get off the bus and re-enter using the back door. Angry and tired, Georgia started to argue with the driver over the absurdity of his demand. But knowing she had no power, she collected herself and stepped off the bus. As she turned toward the rear entrance, the bus driver purposely drove away, leaving her behind. She vowed to never ride a bus again.
Two months later in the same city, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to obey the bus driver who ordered her to move to the back of the bus so a White man could have her seat. The plans for the Montgomery Bus Boycott had been months in the making. It would secure Parks’ place in history and launch Martin Luther King, Jr. into the national spotlight.
But for a boycott to be successful, you need more than a strong-willed woman and motivating pastor. You need committed ex-riders who can find different, inconvenient ways to get to work. That might mean getting up hours earlier and getting home hours later because you had to walk the ten miles that the bus could cover in thirty minutes. It might mean having to come up with $30 for a month of taxi rides instead of $6 for the bus. It might mean risking your job, either because you arrived late or because your White employer wanted to punish you for challenging the status quo. Most of all, you need thousands of people who can make these sacrifices not for a few days or a few months, but for 382 days. For a boycott to succeed, supporters must be able to endure more pain for more days than the opposition.
This is where Georgia Gilmore met the moment.
Already familiar with ways to get to work without the bus, Gilmore attended the first meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the group formed to coordinate the boycott. Gilmore gathered some friends and started selling sandwiches and baked goods, with all of the proceeds going to the MIA. Those proceeds would support the carpooling efforts that became the backbone of the boycott.
She called her group the Club from Nowhere to ensure the anonymity of members. The club grew from selling fried chicken sandwiches in the church parking lot to selling dinners, cakes and pies out of salons, laundromats and other gathering places. The group raised hundreds of dollars each week to pay for the gas that fueled carpools and it served to bind the community, creating a unified commitment and sense of solidarity. When city officials pressured local insurance companies to stop insuring the carpool cars, the Club to Nowhere raised funds to secure car insurance from Lloyd’s of London.
As the boycott wore on, King and eighty-eight others were arrested for conspiring to interfere with a business. During the trial against King (State of Alabama v. M. L. King, Jr. (1956)), Gilmore testified about the discrimination she’d faced riding the Montgomery buses. As a result of her testimony and support for the boycott, Georgia was fired from her job as a cook. King, a neighbor who frequently enjoyed her meals, helped Gilmore equip her kitchen so she could make a living running her own catering business out of her home. Gilmore’s home became a frequent gathering place for King and other members of the MIA, where they held strategy meetings and knew their food wasn’t at risk of being poisoned.
Finally, on Nov. 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated seating on public buses unconstitutional, and on Dec. 20, 1956, King called for the end of the 382 day boycott. In a New York Times interview, Julia Turshen, the author of the cookbook “Feed the Resistance” noted, “You don’t hear Miss Gilmore’s name as often as Rosa Parks, but her actions were just as critical. She literally fed the movement. She sustained it.”
Gilmore continued to defy racism as the civil rights movement gained momentum. After her son was arrested and beaten for crossing through a park that had been designated “Whites Only,” Georgia joined a class-action suit Gilmore v. City of Montgomery (1959) to successfully desegregate the parks. The city initially responded by closing the parks rather than allow integration. In 1974, the Supreme Court upheld the decision and the city eventually relented.
In 1961, Freedom Riders arrived at the Montgomery bus station and were attacked by an angry mob. Gilmore sheltered a number of the injured in her home until it was safe for them to leave. Throughout the 60s and 70s, Gilmore’s home entertained many civil rights leaders. President Lyndon Johnson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy also paid her a visit to savor some of the most famous food in the South.
On March 9, 1990 - the 25th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March – Gilmore died while preparing food for the celebration. She had just celebrated her seventieth birthday. In a fitting twist, the food she’d prepared was served to the mourners at her funeral.
To learn more about Georgia Gilmore, we recommend The New York Times obituary Georgia Gilmore Overlooked, Wikipedia’s profile Georgia Gilmore and The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It by Jo Ann Gibson Robinson.