Georgia Gilmore, the Alabama Cook Who Fueled the Civil Rights Movement With Food

Georgia Gilmore's food helped feed the civil rights movement.
Georgia Gilmore's food helped feed the civil rights movement. / The Montgomery Advisor/Alabama Department of Archives and History, Wikimedia Commons// CC BY-SA 4.0

Georgia Gilmore played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement—one of feeding and funding those at the frontlines. A marvelous cook, she took it upon herself to bring together a secret society-esque group of women who used food to fuel the movement. Gilmore was strong-willed and willing to speak up against racial injustice, two attributes that served her well when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began.

A large number of people rallied together to help the bus boycott’s success and ensure that alternative methods of transportation were available to Black people, who often relied on public transportation. Gilmore helped feed those involved with organizing the protests and used the profits she made from selling food to pay for insurance, gas, and repairs for the hundreds of vehicles that took Black laborers to and from their places of work. “You don’t hear Miss Gilmore’s name as often as Rosa Parks, but her actions were just as critical,” Julia Turshen, author of Feed the Resistance, told The New York Times in 2019. “She literally fed the movement. She sustained it.”

Georgia Gilmore and the “Club From Nowhere”

Georgia Gilmore preparing a box lunch.
Georgia Gilmore preparing a box lunch. / The Montgomery Advisor/Alabama Department of Archives and History, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Gilmore was born Montgomery, Alabama, on February 5, 1920. She worked as a head cook at a whites-only cafeteria in downtown Montgomery, as a cleaner, and as a nurse-midwife. She was also a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She raised six children and was active in the civil rights movement.

Her activism cost her her job as a cook at the National Lunch Company. Her employers also blacklisted her, hampering her ability to find other work. So Gilmore transformed her home kitchen into an informal restaurant where people pivotal to the movement gathered, irrespective of their backgrounds. She became a confidante for Martin Luther King Jr., who often held important meetings at her home, and Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy reportedly ate in her kitchen.

Gilmore also rallied other Black women to contribute to the cause, helping them set up their own food-selling ventures that raised funds for civil rights. These women came together to form the “Club From Nowhere,” named so that white people wouldn't catch on. They presented their collected cash at boycott participants’ meetings each week.

Georgia Gilmore’s Legacy

When a Montgomery County grand jury indicted King and dozens of the movement's other leaders in February 1956, Gilmore was among the many domestic workers who testified in their defense. She recounted the racist encounters she had experienced while taking public buses.

In her testimony, Gilmore identified the bus driver who once told her to enter a bus from the back door, after she paid her fare, and sped off before she could do so. She told the judge, “When I paid my fare and they got the money, they don't know Negro money from white money.” The incident had prompted Gilmore to stage her own personal bus boycott months before the Montgomery Bus Boycott kicked off.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted over a year, ending only on December 20, 1956, when the Supreme Court ruled that segregation violated the 14th Amendment. But Gilmore’s activism didn’t stop when the bus boycott did.

She continued to work for the cause until she died on Friday, March 9, 1990—the 25th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery. She was in the kitchen preparing macaroni and cheese and chicken for the marchers the day she died; her family served that dish to the mourners at her visitation. In 1995, the Alabama Historical Commission erected a historical marker in front of her house on Dericote Street to mark her legacy. Her recipes can still be found in various cookbooks.