Studying the American Civil Rights Movement, you’ve likely heard about Rosa Parks, the African-American woman who was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat on the bus in December 1955. And certainly, you must have heard of Martin Luther King Jr, the revolutionary Civil Rights activist who led the Montgomery Bus Boycott that followed her arrest. But what is less well-known is the story of Georgia Gilmore, the Montgomery cook, midwife and activist who secretly fed and funded the civil rights movement.
Georgia Gilmore was born on 5th February 1920. Like most African-Americans in the South at that time, she faced a great deal of racial discrimination. In fact, she stopped riding the bus even before the Montgomery Bus Boycott because she was tired of financially supporting a bigoted, discriminatory system. Georgia Gilmore actually went on to testify against a bus driver in court, an action which resulted in her losing her job at the National Lunch – a white-owned, segregated restaurant where her participation in peaceful protest was considered grounds for dismissal.
Fortunately, Georgia Gilmore had always been a remarkable cook, so when she lost her job at the National Lunch, King himself encouraged her to consider starting a restaurant of her own. Out of that conversation, Georgia Gilmore House was born, an informal restaurant run out of Georgia’s home that also served as a clubhouse of sorts for King. In fact, when he had important meetings scheduled with other activists or politicians, Georgia’s was his go-to place – he could trust both the quality of the food and the discretion. Eventually, everyone from Morris Dees, with the Southern Poverty Law Center, to Robert Kennedy, had eaten at Georgia’s House on King’s invitation.
But Georgia Gilmore didn’t just feed the organisers of the bus boycott, she also helped fund it. The bus boycott ran for just over a year, and finding alternate means of transportation for all of those people cost money. There were repairs that needed to be made, vehicles that needed to be purchased, and Georgia Gilmore helped make sure that there was always money in the coffers when they needed it.
She did that by founding the “Club from Nowhere” – the name chosen on the basis that if questioned about the origins of the money, activists could truthfully say that it “came from nowhere.” The club began with Georgia Gilmore and several other women scrounging up what little they had in order to buy $14 worth of chicken, bread and lettuce so that they could make and sell sandwiches at an upcoming rally. The sandwiches were a hit, which enabled them to expand until they were selling full meals in their neighbourhoods, and cakes and pies in local Laundromats and beauty salons. Soon they were bringing in roughly 100-200 dollars each week, which would be equivalent to more than a thousand dollars each week today.
Georgia’s commitment to the cause made it possible for the boycott to continue for the 381 days necessary for the city of Montgomery to finally agree to integrate the buses. It was a turning point in the Civil Right Movement, and, in many ways, we have Georgia Gilmore to thank for that.
Georgia’s activism and support of the movement didn’t end there. It continued right up until the day she died. On the morning of her death, Georgia Gilmore was up making mac and cheese and chicken for those marching in honor of the 25th anniversary of the March from Selma, and the food she made that day was used to feed those who came to mourn her.
Even in death, she still found a way to feed and serve those in her community.