Question of the Month:

Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia

December 2007

Q:  Weren't there Black people who refused to give up their bus seats years before Rosa Parks did?

-- Jill Cavanaugh, Chicago, Illinois

news A:  Rosa Parks' place in the pantheon of civil rights leaders is justified by her courageous defiance of a segregation law and her lifetime of civil rights activism. Yes, you are correct: she was not the first African American to disobey the segregation laws regulating bus travel. Eleven years before Parks refused to give her seat to a White man, a Black woman in Virginia refused to give her seat to a White couple and her action led to a landmark Supreme Court decision.

On July 16, 1944, Irene Morgan (later Kirkaldy)[1] boarded a Greyhound bus in Gloucester County, Virginia, where she had been recuperating at her mother's home following a miscarriage. The twenty-seven year old mother of two had a doctor's appointment in Baltimore, Maryland, a five-hour ride from the Gloucester County bus station. She sat in the "Colored Section," several rows from the back of the bus. The bus was crowded. When a young white couple boarded and needed seats, the White driver told Morgan and the African American woman[2] seated next to her to surrender their seats and move farther back. Irene Morgan refused. "I was shocked at first and then slowly realized he was serious," she wrote years later.[3] The driver, angered by Morgan's refusal to obey him, drove the bus to the Middlesex County town of Saluda and stopped outside the jail. A sheriff's deputy came aboard and told Morgan that he had a warrant for her arrest.

Unlike Rosa Parks, Irene Morgan had not been trained to accept the tenets of nonviolent civil disobedience. When she was handed the arrest warrant she tore it and tossed it out the bus window. One of the officers swore at her and tried to grab her arm to physically remove her from the bus. According to Morgan:

"He touched me. That's when I kicked him in a very bad place. He hobbled off, and another one came on. He was trying to put his hands on me to get me off. I was going to bite him, but he was dirty, so I clawed him instead. I ripped his shirt. We were both pulling at each other. He said he'd use his nightstick. I said, "We'll whip each other."[4]

After being subdued, she was dragged off the bus, and locked in the Middlesex County jail. Morgan shouted through the bars to ask someone to tell the local minister to call her mother. She was jailed for resisting arrest and violating Virginia's segregation law. When her mother arrived, she had to post a hefty $500 bail.In court, Morgan pleaded guilty to the first charge (resisting arrest) and paid a $100 fine. She pleaded not guilty to the second charge (violating Virginia's segregation law), but was convicted and fined $10, which she refused to pay.

At her trial in Middlesex Circuit Court, Spottswood Robinson III, her attorney, argued that segregation laws unfairly impeded interstate commerce. Robinson made a strategic decision not to argue that the laws were unfair under the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection because racial segregation, while unjust, was the law of the land. The strategy did not work at the local court but it would pay dividends later. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), looking for a test case regarding segregation on interstate travel, became involved and supplied Morgan with a legal team led by Thurgood Marshall and William Hastie. Her arrest and $10 fine were appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court by the NAACP's lawyers. On June 3, 1946, in Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in interstate travel was unconstitutional as "an undue burden on commerce." The High Court said,

"As no state law can reach beyond its own border nor bar transportation of passengers across its boundaries, diverse seating requirements for the races in interstate journeys result. As there is no federal act dealing with the separation of races in interstate transportation, we must decide the validity of this Virginia statute on the challenge that it interferes with commerce, as a matter of balance between the exercise of the local police power and the need for national uniformity in the regulations for interstate travel. It seems clear to us that seating arrangements for the different races in interstate motor travel require a single, uniform rule to promote and protect national travel. Consequently, we hold the Virginia statute in controversy invalid."[5]

Justice Stanley F. Reed wrote "Seating arrangements for the different races in interstate motor travel require a single uniform rule to promote and protect national travel."[6] Stated differently, forcing passengers to change seats or sections every time they crossed state lines was unconstitutional. The court did not rule that segregated transportation within the state was unconstitutional. Although this Supreme Court decision did not attack the real motive behind Jim Crow laws and policies-namely the intent to maintain White supremacy-it did signal that the High Court was willing to rule (in this case indirectly) against the "Southern Way."

It is not surprising that those parts of the United States, primarily but not exclusively the South, where segregation was codified in law or practiced as custom ignored Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia. The Supreme Court did not tell them what to do or not to do. States rights, it was argued, superseded anything coming from "High Government." And, in some cases, it could be argued that "city rights," "town rights," even "neighborhood rights" superseded Supreme Court rulings. A year after the Irene Morgan decision, an interracial group, led by Bayard Rustin and other members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), staged bus rides through the Upper South to test compliance to the Supreme Court decision. During the rides, the young "freedom riders" paid tribute to Morgan in a song which concluded: "Get on the bus, sit anyplace, 'Cause Irene Morgan won her case. You don't have to ride Jim Crow." According to Rustin:

"Therefore the combination of these blacks who were already resisting, and the Irene Morgan Decision, which gave blacks the right to resist segregation, particularly in interstate travel, we in CORE decided immediately following the Morgan decision that the next year, 1947, we were going to create a nationwide protest with nine blacks and nine whites who would go into buses all over the upper south with blacks sitting in the front and the whites sitting in the back to challenge this. This was known generally as the first Freedom Ride. It was called 'The Journey of Reconciliation.' As a result of the Journey of Reconciliation a number of black and whites were jailed. That was my first experience on a chain gang. In late 1947, early 1948 I spent thirty days on a chain gang, as well as did a number of whites and other blacks.

By CORE's moving through the southern states getting five blacks arrested here, five whites arrested there, an interracial couple being arrested here, and willingness to go to jail and write about it, and the fact that the NAACP picked up those experiences and made booklets as to how to adhere to the Irene Morgan Decision and said, 'We will give you an attorney anywhere you go and you are willing to face arrest to clarify this issue,' that period of eight years of continuously doing this all over the south prepared for the 1960s revolution, prepared for the 1954 Supreme Court Decision."[7]

In 1961, Freedom Riders rode buses through the South to protest segregation and were met with a level of violence in Alabama that stunned the nation, revealing the deep hatred that many southern Whites had for Blacks. The Freedom Riders were beaten, kicked, punched, hit with clubs, had their bus bombed, and found themselves incarcerated in local jails where they rightly feared that they could be killed by proponents of White supremacy. But their willingness to suffer helped draw attention to the racial caste system that operated in the 1960s. Truth be told, there may have never been freedom rides had Irene Morgan obeyed the bus driver's command to give up her seat.

Irene Morgan lived in relative obscurity until recently. In 1995 she appeared in a public television documentary about her case called, You Don't Have To Ride Jim Crow. That appearance introduced her story to a new generation. In 2001, Gloucester, Virginia, honored her during the town's 350th anniversary celebration. That same year President William Jefferson Clinton recognized her with the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second highest civilian honor that a President can bestow. She was a remarkable woman-she obtained her bachelor's degree from St. John's University at age 68 and her master's from Queen's College at 73 years of age. She spent much of her life involved in civic and community uplift efforts, especially feeding and clothing homeless people. She never asked for nor sought public recognition.

Mrs. Irene Morgan Kirkaldy died on August 10, 2007 at the age of 90. Rest in peace, Sister.


[1] It was before the death of her first husband and subsequent remarriage, and her name was Irene Morgan. It would later be Irene Morgan Kirkaldy.

[2] The woman sitting next to Morgan was holding a young baby. Not only did Morgan refuse to obey the bus driver but she encouraged the woman next to her to not give up her seat.

[3] Lawrence Latane, Civil Rights Leader Remembered: Her courage in the face of injustice helped changed a nation, mourners say, http://www.inrich.com/cva/ric/news.apx.-content-articles-RTD-2007-08-19-0240.html (November 22, 2007).

[4] Carol Morello, The Freedom Fighter a Nation Nearly Forgot: Sixty-six years ago a young Adventist woman helped chart the future of race relations in America, http://www.adventistreview.org/2001-1505/story1.html (November 22, 2007).

[5] Richard Wormser, Morgan V. Virginia 1946, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_morgan.html (November 24, 2007). See also, Frost Illustrated, The Original Freedom Rider Irene Morgan Kirkaldy Dies, http://www.frostillustrated.com/atf.php?sid=1942 (November 22, 2007). See, also, Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, http://law.jrank.org/pages/13347/Morgan-v-Commonwealth-Virginia.html (November 22, 2007).

[6] Richard Goldstein, Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, Early Civil Rights Activist Whose Suit Led to Supreme Court Decision Outlawing Segregation Seating on Interstate Bus Lines in 1946, RIP, http://hymes.wordpress.com/2007/08/13/irene-morgan-kirkaldy-early-civil-rights-activist-whose-suit-led-to-supreme-court-decision-outlawing-segregated-seating-on-interstate-bus-lines-in-1946-rip/ (November 22, 2007).

[7] Ed Edwin, The First Freedom Ride: Bayard Rustin On His Work With Core, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6909 (November 22, 2007).

December 2007 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum


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