Last month, in the #BlackPhilanthropyEdition, we delved into the history of Black Philanthropy Month, and learned more about the methods of aid Black folks developed and employed in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. In this issue, we cover the roots of the contemporary philanthropic movement: people who claimed space and transformed the Civil Rights movement through organizing, music, food and creative changemaking.
TELL THEM ABOUT THE DREAM!
Mahalia Jackson was baptized in the Mississippi River in 1923. She was twelve years old. She grew up in the church, cutting her teeth in the choir at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church. By the time she made her name as an international superstar and gospel legend in the 1950s, she was using her influence, and coins, to take up the call of her generation and joined the civil rights movement. “Shortly after meeting King at the National Baptist Convention in 1956, Jackson agreed to sing at a fundraising rally for the Montgomery bus boycott. After that, she frequently accompanied King to perform at rallies and events,” reported Vox writer Emily Crockett, “…This bond of mutual inspiration and respect between King and Jackson came at a pivotal moment during the 1963 March on Washington.” Dr. King had gone through several iterations of his speech by the time he made it to the podium. According to Crockett, the speech was supposed to be 5 minutes in length.
But during delivery, King started improvising a bit when he reached a sentence that felt clunky. Instead of calling on the crowd to “go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction,” he went with: “Go back to Mississippi; go back to Alabama; go back to South Carolina; go back to Georgia; go back to Louisiana; go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”
It was at that moment, says King’s adviser Clarence Jones, that Mahalia Jackson cried out: “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!”
“Blues are the songs of despair, but gospel songs are the songs of hope,” Mahalia once remarked. Mahalia was one of many Black pop stars who used their time, talent and treasure to uplift movement. Protest hymns like Nina Simone’s Strange Fruit (1939) and Mississipi Goddam (1964) to We Shall Overcome at Stonewall, an adaptation of Charles Albert Tindley’s I’ll Overcome Someday provided the soundtrack of the movement. Elsewhere, musicians like Ray Charles refused to perform in segregated music spaces. The fight for desegregation was being fought on all fronts.
THE CLUB FROM NOWHERE
In the local arena, much like today, people did what they could to collectively raise funds for the movement. In 1950s Montgomery, Alabama, activist Georgia Gilmore saw the potential radical change and began fundraising through the quiet intimacy of cooking.
“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,” reported NPR columnist Maria Godoy in a 2018 article about the activist. She called her group, the Club from Nowhere. “[Georgia Gilmore] offered these women, many of whose grandmothers were born into slavery, a way to contribute to the cause that would not raise suspicions of white employers who might fire them from their jobs, or white landowners who might evict them from the houses they rented,” John T. Edge says.
Godoy continued: “The money they raised helped pay for the alternative transportation system that arose in Montgomery during the 381-day bus boycott: hundreds of cars, trucks and wagons that ferried black workers to and from their jobs across town each day. Gilmore’s cooking helped pay for the insurance, gas, wagons and vehicle repairs that kept that system going.”
Gilmore’s activism came at a high price: she eventually lost her job for testifying at Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘s 1956 trial, in which he and several others were charged with unlawful conspiracy for organizing boycotts. This set back didn’t stop her, and she eventually opened a restaurant in her home which became a popular place for organizers and activists of the day.
In his 1999 book, At the Crossroads: The Proceedings of the First National Conference on Black Philanthropy, Dr. C. Erick Lincoln described philanthropy as, “The voluntary transfer of significant values identified with the self, or an extension of the self to other entities perceived as wanting. These quantum of value may be intangible, as in the case of love, labor, services or support: or they may be concrete and tangible as in the case of money, works of art, clothing, shelter and the like.” Dr. Emmett Carson, a leading scholar on Black Philanthropy explains further, “”One reason little has been written about black philanthropy is that the word philanthropy evokes images of large foundations and wealthy philanthropists. When one expands the concept to include giving money, goods, and time; blacks emerge as having a strong, substantial philanthropic tradition.”
When we push against popular notions of philanthropy to include the ways we create spaces that abundantly care for others, no longer asterisked or subsumed, we lean into the spirit of our ancestors.
- Overlooked No More: Georgia Gilmore, Who Fed and Funded the Montgomery Bus Boycott, New York Times
- Black Americans donate to make a difference, Reuters
- Behind the Fundraisers Saving Queer and Trans Lives During COVID-19, Them
- The Underground Kitchen That Funded the Civil Rights Movement, Atlas Obscura
- The Woman Who Inspired MLK Jr’s I Have a Dream Speech, Vox
- Black Americans donate to make a difference, Reuters
- Three Women Lead The Wave For Black Philanthropy, Forbes
- Robert Harlan, Black Past
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