Georgia Gilmore Kept the Montgomery Bus Fed
According to Maria Godoy a National Public Radio correspondent, in December 1955, while Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus fueling the citywide bus boycott movement, Georgia Gilmore was working behind the scenes feeding the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King., Jr. and other activists who organized the citywide bus boycott.
As King and fellow ministers met with the Montgomery Improvement Association, Gilmore was on site selling fried chicken sandwiches and other foods to those who pledged not to use the city’s buses until they were desegregated. It’s a little-known fact that her ‘secret kitchen’ played a key role in “feeding the civil rights movement” and she “poured the profits back into the movement” as reported by John T. Edge in his book “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South.” “In the process her kitchen became a locus for change,” quoted Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance based out of the University of Mississippi. The alliance documents the “intersection of food and culture in the south. “Gilmore organized black women to sell pound cakes and sweet potato pies, fried fish and stewed greens, pork chops and rice at beauty salons, cab stands and churches. She offered these women, many of whose grandmothers were born into slavery, a way to contribute to the cause that would not raise suspicion of white employers who might fire them from their jobs, or white landowners who might evict them from the houses they rented,” Edge says.
The money they raised helped pay for the alternative transportation systems that were essential for the successful 381-day bus boycott. Funds needed for insurance, gas and repairs for the hundreds of cars, trucks, and wagons that transported black workers to and from their jobs across town each day were paid for through Gilmores’s cooking network. “Her cooks kept that system going.”
Gilmore’s name for the group of women who worked on this project was “The Club from Nowhere” because as her sister, Betty Gilmore told Edge years later, “It was like ‘Where did this money come from?’ It came from nowhere.”
“Gilmore would attend MIA meetings at the church and announce how much she’d raised that week, eventually inspiring other groups of women in town to start similar endeavors,” Edge says.
In February 1956, a Montgomery County grand jury indicted King and dozens of other boycott leaders for unlawful conspiracy. Gilmore was among those who boldly testified at King’s trial. As the late Rev Al Dixon told National Public Radio in 2005, “Everybody could tell you Georgia Gilmore didn’t take no junk. You pushed her too far, she would say a few bad words. You pushed her any further, she would hit you.”
Gilmore brought that fighting spirit to the courtroom. She fearlessly denounced the white bus driver who had kicked her off a city bus from the witness stand. “When I paid my fare and they got the money, they don’t know Negro money form white money,” she told the judge.
“The testimony made Gilmore a hero to local blacks,” Edge says. “But in the white world she became a pariah.”
Gilmore lost her job as a cook at the National Launch Company – though Edge says, “it’s not clear whether she was fired or resigned knowing her testimony would lead to a dismissal.”
King lived a few blocks from Gilmore and was a fan of her cooking and her activism. “Whenever VIP’s could come to town, Dr. King would always have Miss Gilmore cook up a batch of chicken. Nelson Malden, King’s one-time barber in Montgomery, recalled in a 2005 interview with NPR, “When she was fired from her restaurant job, Reverend King said, “Well, why don’t you go into business for yourself?” So, she did. With King’s support, Ms. Gilmore turned her house into an informal restaurant.
“Robert F. Kennedy came there. President Lyndon Johnson had also been here – Dr. King brought him,” according to Gilmore’s son, Mark Gilmore, who died in 2008.
“Gilmore’s house became a clubhouse for King,” Edge writes. “And often the first stop for people in the civil rights movement who visited Montgomery. When King arrived in Montgomery during the 1965 March from Selma, he beelined to Gilmore’s kitchen for pork chops.”
Gilmore died on the 25th Anniversary of the Civil Rights March from Selma. She’d spent the morning preparing chicken and macaroni and cheese to feed people marching in observation of the Anniversary. Her family served that food to those who came to mourn her.