Irene West was an active participant in the African American freedom struggle who, according to Jo Ann Robinson, dedicated her life to “fighting for the cause of first-class citizenship” for blacks (Robinson, 70). A prominent woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who was married to Dr. A. W. West, Sr., a wealthy dentist, Martin Luther King referred to West as “the real mother of the Movement” (Seay, i).
West was born in 1890 and raised in Perry County, Alabama. She graduated from Alabama State College, which is now called Alabama State University. She also attended Tuskegee and Hampton Institutes. West was a member of numerous civic organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Women’s League for Peace and Freedom. She joined the Women’s Political Council (WPC) shortly after it was founded in 1946, and became its treasurer. As a WPC organizer, West was involved in voter registration projects, educational issues, efforts to improve the treatment of African Americans on city buses, and efforts to improve the poor quality of segregated parks and recreational facilities.
Although West was in her sixties at the start of the Montgomery bus boycott, she was one of the most involved activists—distributing information about the boycott, calling civic leaders to meetings, and driving in the carpool. In Stride Toward Freedom, King’s memoir of the boycott, he recalled West’s enthusiasm for the campaign and how she spent the days driving people to work and home again. Interviewed early in the boycott, West was already impressed with the youthful King and Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) lawyer Fred Gray, stating: “Their minds are much older than they are biologically” (West, 23 January 1956).
West and several others, including E. D. Nixon, were appointed to the executive board of the MIA because, according to Robinson, “MIA members felt [they] would speak out without fear and speak with authority as representatives of the black protesters” (Robinson, 65). She, King, Robinson, and several other MIA members made up a special delegation of representatives who met with city commissioners and bus company officials during the boycott to resolve concerns about the treatment of African Americans on transportation. West was secretary of the MIA Transportation Committee and was also one of the MIA members arrested for operating the carpool on 22 February 1956, along with her friend, Robinson. Robinson later recalled that during the fingerprinting at the jail, Mrs. West joked with the officers and “the interchange was good for all of us, and we felt wonderful, relaxed, at peace with ourselves” (Robinson, 151).