Thelma Glass, Ala. teacher at the forefront of civil rights activism, dies at 96

Almost a decade before the arrest of Rosa Parks in 1955 sparked the Montgomery bus boycott and helped catapult civil rights to the political forefront, a group of teachers at the historically black Alabama State College in Montgomery formed the Women’s Political Council to campaign against the abuses and indignities of segregation.

Their activism — notably on the inequalities of the Montgomery bus system— set the groundwork for the rise of an obscure Montgomery preacher, Martin Luther King Jr., who eventually took the lead in the successful boycott.

(Alabama State University Media Relations) - Thelma McWilliams Glass, a civil rights activist who played a role in starting the Montgomery bus boycotts, died July 24 at 96.

Many of the women remained historical footnotes, which did not sit well with Thelma Glass, who was secretary of the Women’s Political Council and helped champion the boycott long before it happened. “The men talked about it, you know, but we were ready to take action,” Mrs. Glass told an Alabama State publication last year.

One of the last surviving core members of the women’s council, Mrs. Glass died July 24 at 96. The death, at a Montgomery hospital, was confirmed by a great-niece, Marcia Ivery Young. She did not provide a cause of death.

The women’s council, formed at Alabama State in 1946, included at its peak as many as 300 public school teachers, social workers, nurses and wives of black professionals in Montgomery.

Mrs. Glass joined the organization soon after she began teaching at Alabama State in 1947. Howard O. Robinson, the university archivist, called Mrs. Glass part of a “small cadre of women who were in front and the most active in the Women’s Political Council.”

She remained involved even when membership dwindled to four, Robinson said. Many abandoned the group amid intense political pressure against its efforts to enfranchise black voters (by providing help to pass the racist literacy tests required for voting). The key focus of the council was to end the humiliations inflicted on the tens of thousands of African Americans who rode the public buses.

Blacks were forced to stand even when seats were empty, and the buses stopped much less frequently in black neighborhoods than in white areas, Mrs. Glass later testified in court when the city tried to declare the boycott illegal. She added that drivers would often speed away between the time an African American paid his fare at the front door and was forced to enter through the rear door.

The Women’s Political Council, led by Alabama State English teacher Jo Ann Robinson, confronted the city commissioners with detailed information about drivers, dates and routes where problems recurred.

Robinson wrote in her memoir, “The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It” (1987), that Mrs. Glass and another colleague were “sharp, asked a deluge of questions and pressed the commissioners for answers.”

The privately owned company that ran the city bus lines made token efforts to mend its ways, but most drivers reverted to their old habits. Within days of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling against “separate but equal” public schools in 1954, the women’s council threatened city commissioners with a bus boycott and said it had the support of a consortium of black community leaders.

Several black women were arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up their seats to whites — including a pregnant 15-year-old — but NAACP leaders such as E.D. Nixon held out for a strategic passenger with broader appeal.

In Rosa Parks, a humble seamstress who also was active in the NAACP, they found someone viewed as a pillar of black society and who could serve as a vivid symbol against racial injustice. Parks was arrested after declining to vacate her seat to a white man and was fined $10, plus $4 in court fees.

The women’s council was absorbed into the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association with the charismatic 26-year-old King as its leader. The women continued to play a key supporting role by mimeographing thousands of fliers to spread word of the planned boycott triggered by the Parks arrest. Mrs. Glass recruited her students to help pass out the pamphlets.

Initially intended to last a day, the boycott continued for nearly 13 months and roiled the city’s leaders by its display of sustained sacrifice.

Mrs. Glass and her husband, a biology professor at Alabama State, helped to form carpools, which the city tried to ban by saying they were unlicensed taxis. They allowed their own car to be used for public transport, braving Ku Klux Klan attempts to vandalize the vehicle with acid.

“When I looked at that bus as it passed my house and nobody was on it, it was a feeling of joy that will be with me forever,” Mrs. Glass told the Montgomery Advertiser in 2004, reflecting on the first day of the boycott. “I had the idea that maybe we were finally going to be successful in getting everybody to cooperate.”

In June 1956, the federal district court in Montgomery ruled that racially segregated bus seating was unconstitutional. That November, the U.S. Supreme court upheld the lower court opinion in Browder v. Gayle, and the boycott ended the following month.

Thelma Lucile McWilliams was born May 16, 1916, in Mobile, Ala., where her father was a cook. She graduated from Alabama State in 1941 and received a master’s degree in geography from Columbia University in 1947.

She became a geography professor at what became Alabama State University and retired in 1981. Her husband, Arthur O. Glass, whom she married in 1942, died in 1983. They had no children, and Mrs. Glass had no immediate survivors.

She remained active in black fraternal and social organizations and often reflected on her earlier years as an activist.

“Being that kind of teacher in 1950s Montgomery was a dangerous proposition,” she told the university publication ASU Today in 2011. “I didn’t even tell my own mother I was involved in the work of the WPC because I didn’t want her to worry. Once I started challenging the system, I got too busy to think about it, and the fear disappeared.”

bernsteina@washpost.com

 
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