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Thelma Glass

Kathryn S Gardiner  | Published on 10/8/2021

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights



Glass_Thelma-fromMontgomeryAdvertiser
On Dec. 1, 1955, on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused a bus driver’s order to move from the “white” section to the “colored” section. This was a coordinated act by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to push the issue into the court system where its constitutionality could be argued under the law. Rosa was arrested for civil disobedience that day and fined $10 plus $4 court fees. 

Almost 40 years earlier and two hours south, Thelma McWilliams was born on May 16, 1916 in Mobile. Education was of high priority to her hotel-cook father and homemaker mother, and Thelma graduated as valedictorian of Dunbar High School at age 15. She went on to earn her undergraduate degree, with honors, from Alabama State Teachers College and a Masters in Geography at Columbia University’s Teachers College. 




Almost as soon as she’d graduated, Alabama State University hired her to teach geography courses. “She had such a pleasing personality,” said John Knight, one of her students who would go on to become Alabama State’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. “You felt a sense of warmth. And she always challenged you academically to be the very best.”

“Being that kind of teacher in the 1950s Montgomery was a dangerous proposition,” Thelma told ASU Today in 2011. 

Thelma married fellow professor Arthur Glass in 1942 and taught at Alabama State until her retirement in 1981. In an already impressive, admirable life, it is the events of 1955 that put Thelma in the spotlight of history.

“Montgomery was like most southern cities,” Thelma said in a 2005 interview with The Montgomery Advertiser. “Segregation was it and you had to fight for every opportunity you had.”

Thelma joined the Women’s Political Council in 1947. The WPC formed in 1943 with the focus of advancing civil rights for people of color in Montgomery. Their numbers dwindled year by year as civil rights work came with death threats and potential pushback from employers. Thelma remained a member, even until she was only one of four. 

Segregation on Montgomery buses had been a key issue for many civil rights organizations. “The men talked about it, you know,” Thelma said in 2011, “but we [the Women’s Political Council] were ready to take action.” They were the first to call for a boycott of the entire Montgomery bus system.

Separate but inequal had been the routine on Montgomery buses. Even when most seats were vacant, Black riders were forced to stand, and that was after they’d been forced to enter through a rear door to leave the front door available for white riders. Buses made fewer stops in Black neighborhoods, often adding long walks after these uncomfortable bus rides.

Thelma also recalled numerous incidents of drivers leaving behind Black riders who paid at the front door, but then had to enter through the rear door. Once the bus driver had their money, they’d drive off and leave the paying rider stranded. The WPC had record of the exact dates, routes, and drivers where these incidents occurred—and indeed, one of the victims of this theft had been Rosa Parks herself in 1943, by the same bus driver who would demand her compliance in 1955. 

The WPC had tried for years to integrate the buses, but the Montgomery County Commission refused to hear their case and threatened to arrest people who attended any meetings on the subject. “Integration was a dirty word, and you could get in a lot of trouble if you even spoke of it,” Thelma recalled, “but I didn’t mind speaking my mind and asking questions. I stopped being nervous when they went through this block throwing acid on cars.”

By 1955, Thelma was the organization’s secretary and the WPC jumped into action within hours of Rosa’s arrest.

Most of the bus-riding public were Black—a full “three-quarters of the bus riders,” according to The New York Times—and a boycott would put significant pressure on the city and the bus companies. Thelma and others of the WPC put feet to pavement and wheels to the road. Thelma passed out fliers about the boycott, encouraging people to walk or car-pool. She drove people herself. Anything to keep the buses empty.

And they were. Within four days, the boycott was in full swing. “When the first bus came by with nobody on it, I couldn’t believe it,” Thelma told The Montgomery Advertiser. “I called two or three people, and I stood right there for several hours because I was just so happy not to see anybody on it. It’s a feeling of such happiness and accomplishment you just can’t quite explain.” What looked like four days of work was actually years of effort finally coming to fruition. 

The approximately 40,000 Black citizens of Montgomery who relied on the bus system took a stand. “Many people did many things,” Thelma said, “but it was the people who walked who made the boycott successful. Nothing would have changed on the buses if they hadn’t decided to stop riding them. It just goes to show you the power of economics.”

The bus boycott was intended to last a single day. Instead, it spanned from Dec. 5, 1955 to Dec. 20, 1956. Within these months, the WPC became part of a new organization called the Montgomery Improvement Association with a dynamic 26-year-old man named Martin Luther King, Jr. as its leader. “My strength came from God and contact with people like MLK, Vernon Johns, and members of the Women’s Political Council, and the young people who wanted things to be better,” Thelma said of those challenging days. “We didn’t have time to sit still and be scared.”

The 14th Amendment of the United States, adopted in 1868, asserts that all U.S. citizens have equal rights and protection under the law, regardless of race. On June 5, 1956, a Montgomery federal court ruled that the segregation of the city’s buses violated that amendment. When the city appealed, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the original decision. That was Dec. 20, 1956. The next day, the boycott ended and Montgomery’s bus system was officially forced to integrate. 

“I wasn’t afraid of anything anymore,” Thelma said in 2005 of her feelings after the long boycott. “It helped me understand people more, poverty and its causes.”

No change, especially that of racial advancement, goes unchallenged. Buses were integrated, but the bus stops remained segregated. Domestic terrorists would take up sniper positions and fire at buses. One such incident struck a pregnant woman riding the bus and shattered both her legs. In early 1957, four of Montgomery’s Black churches were bombed. Members of the Ku Klux Klan were soon arrested and held responsible. 

Thelma continued teaching at Alabama State University and fighting for greater racial equality in Montgomery. The American Association of Geographers notes, “She was well known on campus as a teacher-activist willing to put the values she espoused into action.” She retired from teaching in 1981. Husband Arthur died in 1983.

Despite the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s famously extensive files on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others advocating for civil rights in the United States, Thelma’s name appears in FBI files exactly once. It is unrelated to her advocacy work, but perhaps demonstrates the desperate and continued need for activists like her. 

On March 29, 1987, 71-year-old Thelma and two friends were in a Lincoln Town Car pulled over by deputies of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office. According to the official complaint from Alabama State Representative Alvin Holmes, Thelma and her friends were “ordered out of their vehicle with a loud speaker with their hands above their heads ... the Deputies drew their service revolvers and pointed them at victims while using ‘harsh, cruel, and unusual words.’” He believed that the traffic stop included “unnecessary harassment, intimidation, and drawing and threatening with a dangerous weapon against three prominent black retired citizens.”

The deputies insisted the Town Car was traveling at 83 miles in a 50-mph zone. Thelma asserted they were only going between 50-55 mph. “I feel that my civil rights were violated by the manner in which we were approached by these law enforcement officers and that by the pointing of their guns and tone of their voices, that I was being threatened,” Thelma wrote in her testimony. The deputies said they never drew their weapons or raised their voices.

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office Complaint and Disciplinary review board ruled, unanimously, that the deputies had committed no wrongdoing and dismissed the case. The FBI Civil Rights division similarly concluded there was “scant evidence to show that such conduct was either excessive or motivated by racial animus.”

It is possible that these summations were correct. However, in the years since smartphones have been able to provide witness, bystander videos have contradicted a statistically significant number of official police reports, especially in cases where racially motivated violence took place. It is conceivable that, only 30 years after the outrage provoked by the integration of bus lines, Montgomery and its authorities might still hold racial biases and act on them. 

Thelma spoke proudly of her part in the bus boycott until the end of her days and continued her work for racial justice in Montgomery. In 2005, she said of the events of 1956, “It made me want to push for opportunities for people to better themselves and make this a better society through education and seeking an understanding of different cultures. That spirit must be kept alive today.” Thelma died in 2012 at age 96.