Sixty years ago, Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala., sparked a yearlong boycott that resulted in an end to Jim Crow practices on the city’s buses. The Montgomery Bus Boycott is a pivotal event in the history of the postwar black freedom movement. It propelled the relatively unknown Martin Luther King Jr. into the national spotlight and is credited with inspiring activists, black and white, to organize mass-based protests to put an end to the legalized system of racial inequality. The boycott also showcased the indispensable role of women in both planning and carrying out the boycott. The Women’s Political Council had a distributional network in place well before Parks made her decision that fateful day, and was ready to launch such a protest at a moment’s notice.
Less evident in the boycott’s history is the role of African-American domestic workers. Thousands of African-American women, most of whom were household workers relying on public transportation, were the grassroots base of the campaign. Without their support, the boycott, quite simply, would never have succeeded.
It is well-known that many white employers depended on their household workers and arranged transportation for them to come to work during the boycott. But was this the extent of household-worker activism? The tired but loyal maid who served as a foot soldier in the struggle for civil rights, but continued to go to work despite the hardship? This sentiment was famously summed up in a phrase that has come to represent working-class women’s relationship to the boycott: “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”
Domestic workers, however, were much more than foot soldiers. They filled the pews at the weekly mass meetings and generated energy and enthusiasm for the boycott. But they also exhibited leadership by raising money and mobilizing others in the community to support the campaign. No one better exemplifies this than Georgia Gilmore.
Gilmore was a single mother of six and engaged in different kinds of domestic labor—working as a cleaner, a cook and a nurse. When the boycott started, she put her domestic skills to use to raise money and help defray the enormous cost of running the boycott—the gas, insurance, legal representation and security patrols. As she later recalled: “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. The name was an attempt to shield members from the consequences of openly supporting the boycott. 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 campaign spread to other neighborhoods, where similar clubs formed. Gilmore offered the money at the Monday-night mass meetings to wild cheers and thunderous applause.
When Gilmore’s boss learned of her fundraising activities, he fired and blacklisted her. Undeterred, and with King’s help, Gilmore turned her kitchen into a restaurant. She awoke at 4 in the morning and began preparations to make stuffed pork chops, meat loaf, barbecued ribs, fried fish, spaghetti in meat sauce, collard greens, black-eyed peas, bread pudding and sweet potato pies. She cooked lunch daily out of her kitchen for people involved in the boycott. 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 often had clandestine meetings at her home because he needed a place where he could trust the people and the food.
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.
Women like Georgia Gilmore used their skills as household workers in the service of protest. They were not passive bystanders or so disempowered that they could not take action. Despite representations of household workers as fearful and hesitant in novels such as The Help, history shows us that household workers were organized and determined and played critical roles at key moments. Georgia Gilmore should sit alongside Rosa Parks, Joanne Robinson and Martin Luther King as a leader and visionary in the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
The Rev. Thomas E. Jordon, 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.”
Premilla Nadasen is an associate professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University, and is the author of several books, including the recently published Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women who Built a Movement. 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.