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Cooking up the Civil Rights Movement

If you wanted to feed a movement, what foods would you use?

Throughout history, food has inspired change and food has also been a means to enact that change. Since food is a basic need for survival, when we look at food we can see the inequalities in a society – the people who have access to plenty and the people whose lives are restricted or threatened. Some argue that food may even be the tipping point in riots and revolts.

The Civil Rights Movement is no exception. And this February as we celebrate Black History Month, we wanted to learn more about the food (and people) who fed the Movement.

Georgia Gilmore in 1978 in Montgomery, Ala. She used her culinary skills to support the Montgomery bus boycott.
Georgia Gilmore in 1978. Photo Credit: The Montgomery Advertiser

Meet Georgia Gilmore

Georgia Gilmore isn’t a well-known name associated with the Civil Rights Movement. But it should be, because Georgia Gilmore funded the bus boycotts of the Civil Rights Movement with food.

In October 1955, Georgia Gilmore was headed home from her job as a cafeteria cook at the National Lunch Company, a segregated restaurant in Montgomery, Alabama. Like most working-class black people at the time, Gilmore relied on public transportation and was no stranger to the racism of city bus drivers. On this particular Friday, the white bus driver berated her for not boarding the bus at the back. She argued, but eventually got off and moved toward the back of the bus. She didn’t have a chance. The bus sped off. Gilmore had already paid the fare. At this moment, she realized that she was done with segregated busing. So she decided to walk everywhere. “This kind of individual protest was not unheard of among black women in Montgomery before the bus boycott.”

Two months later, just days after Rosa Parks’ arrest, Gilmore attended a community meeting about a proposed bus boycott, where an impassioned speech from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spurred thousands to action. Attendees began the boycott that would become emblematic of the Civil Rights Movement. Gilmore saw the importance of this protest and quickly jumped into action to support it.

She knew that the boycott would be expensive to run, but that many people didn’t have the luxury of contributing to the cause without losing their livelihood. ​​“Some colored folks or Negroes could afford to stick out their necks more than others because they had independent incomes,” Gilmore said, “but some just couldn’t afford to be called ‘ring leaders’ and have the white folks fire them.” So Georgia Gilmore organized a way for people to support the boycott in other ways.

The Montgomery bus boycott saw thousands of people walking or finding alternative transportation. Photo Credit: Don Cravens

Cooking for a Movement

“Her home kitchen became a locus for change.” Gilmore managed black women across the city to make and sell foods to support the bus boycott. They called the group The Club from Nowhere, named to help protect the Club’s members from backlash. Only Gilmore knew who supported The Club and how they were involved. The premise of The Club was simple: prepare food and sell it; the funds would go toward supporting the bus boycott.

Club members cooked and baked for over a year, making pound cakes, sweet potato pies, fried fish and stewed greens, pork chops and rice. The Club went to beauty salons, cab stands, churches, and even started going door-to-door to sell their food. They were raising a lot of money in support of the boycott.

The idea spread across Montgomery. Gilmore saw this as an opportunity and started a fundraising competition between neighborhoods. “Georgia Gilmore is believed to have raised more money for the boycott than any other person in Montgomery.”

It is estimated that Gilmore helped fundraise between $47,000 - $76,000 over the course of the boycott.

The money that The Club from Nowhere raised helped to maintain a carpool network in Montgomery; the network hired drivers, provided car insurance, and paid for gas and repairs for the vehicles.

Later in life, Gilmore started a catering business and home restaurant. While black people and white people usually ate in separate spaces, “they elbowed together in Gilmore’s kitchen,” the food historian John T. Edge wrote in the book “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South” (2017).
Georgia Gilmore prepares box lunches in her kitchen. Photo Credit: The Montgomery Advertiser

But Gilmore’s role in The Club and the boycott cost her the cafeteria job. In a true testament to her resilience, Gilmore pivoted and transformed her home into an unofficial restaurant. She served well-known figures and leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including Morris Dee, Pres. Lyndon Johnson, Pres. John F. Kennedy, and Dr. King who gave her the restaurant idea and quickly became a regular at her house. Gilmore started cooking well before dawn and changed up the menus every day. “Her home was a haven for Dr. King and other civil rights leaders,” says Pastor Thomas E. Jordan. “It was a safe place to meet and discuss strategies.”

Serving up Change

From all accounts, Gilmore’s cooking was exceptional. People would crowd into her house to eat at lunch and dinner times, spilling out into all rooms of the house. And even though others would sometimes bring food to share, Gilmore’s cooking was the first thing that people would grab and her food was always the first to go. It is no wonder then that her cooking raised thousands for the Civil Rights Movement and that her home, with the kitchen at the heart, was a safe place to plan out the Movement.

"She literally fed the movement. She sustained it.”

Without the money that Gilmore and The Club from Nowhere fundraised, the boycott would not have been able to last for as long as it did. More than a year after it began, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a decision that integrated Montgomery’s buses, effectively ending the boycott. In the words of Julia Turshen, the author of Feed the Resistance: Georgia Gilmore “literally fed the movement. She sustained it.”


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