Today, the Digital Library of Georgia remembers the life of civil rights worker Thelma McWilliams Glass, who passed away at the age of 96. Mrs. Glass, a professor of geography who taught at Alabama State University for forty years, was the last surviving member and secretary of the Women’s Political Council (WPC), a group of African American professional women from Montgomery, Alabama founded in 1946. The WPC played a key role in the organization of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the thirteen-month mass protest and seminal victory that shaped the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
The WPC had organized efforts well in advance of the boycott. In March of 1954, WPC members met with Montgomery mayor W. A. Gayle in March 1954 to negotiate changes to the Montgomery bus system’s discriminatory treatment of African American passengers. When that meeting failed to elicit change, the WPC followed up with another letter in May 1954 to announce plans of a city-wide boycott against the bus system.
The boycott began in earnest on December 1, 1955, when local authorities arrested Rosa Parks, an African American seamstress, when she refused to vacate her seat in the white section of a city bus. Members of the WPC nimbly organized public outcry against Parks’s arrest by printing and distributing thousands of pamphlets throughout Montgomery’s African American community that evening. Under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed on December 5, 1955, and organized the boycott of Montgomery’s buses. Montgomery’s African American residents refused to ride the city bus system through 1956; black commuters and a small number of white sympathizers suffered harassment, threats, and personal inconvenience for more than a year. The MIA organized a carpool system so that people who required transportation could still get where they needed to go, and Mrs. Glass volunteered the use of her personal vehicle throughout the duration of the boycott.
Mrs. Glass also offered key testimony in the Browder v. Gayle lawsuit filed by the NAACP on behalf of a group of African American women who had been mistreated by employees of the bus system. The state of Alabama and the city of Montgomery were enjoined from operating segregated buses as a result of the lawsuit. Ultimately, on November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Browder v. Gayle, and ruled the segregated transportation system unconstitutional.
Women like Mrs. Glass who served actively on MIA committees and organized volunteers were integral to the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. During her lifetime, Glass remained committed to serving her church and community, through organizations that included the Cleveland Avenue YMCA, the Montgomery Area Council on Aging and the March of Dimes. She was the recipient of numerous awards honors from the city of Montgomery and Alabama State University; the Thelma M. Glass Auditorium in ASU’s Trenholm Hall is named after her.