Civil rights activist
Irene Morgan made history in 1944, when her act of civil disobedience—refusing to relinquish her seat on an interstate bus to a white passenger—became a crucial legal battle in the struggle to end institutionalized segregation. Morgan's case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court and set a legal precedent that was used in later years to fight against other forms of segregation. Despite the wide-reaching consequences of Morgan's actions, by the 1960s Morgan's case had largely been forgotten. In the twenty-first century, interest in Morgan's story resurfaced, and she was honored by civil rights organizations and the federal government for her role as a pioneer of the civil rights movement.
Irene Morgan was born on April 9, 1917, in Baltimore, Maryland. She was the sixth of nine children born to parents who were the children of former slaves. Morgan later described her father as having worked various jobs during the Great Depression era to keep the family together, while she and her siblings also worked to contribute to the family's income. After high school, she married Sherwood Morgan with whom she had two children: Sherwood Jr. and Brenda Morgan (later Brenda Morgan Bacquie). Morgan's mother relocated to Gloucester, Virginia, while Morgan remained in Baltimore with her husband and children.
Defied Federal Laws as Unjust
In 1944, Morgan visited her mother in Gloucester after suffering a miscarriage. Morgan had been feeling ill and decided to return to Baltimore for a doctor's visit. At the time, segregation laws in Virginia required African-American passengers to sit in the rear of public busses and relinquish their seats, if needed, to white passengers. Morgan had ridden the segregated busses on numerous occasions and, when boarding the Greyhound Bus, she took a seat in the section designated for African Americans.
Less than an hour into the five-hour bus ride from Gloucester to Baltimore, a white couple boarded the bus and the bus driver asked Morgan and a young African-American woman with an infant in tow to vacate their seats. Morgan refused to move and attempted to prevent her seatmate from obeying the driver. According to Morgan's recollections in a 2000 interview with Carol Morello of the Washington Post, she asked the young mother sitting next to her, "Where do you think you're going with that baby in your arms?" In justification for her actions, Morgan said to Morello, "I didn't do anything wrong. I'd paid for my seat. I was sitting where I was supposed to." She added, "I can't see how anybody in the same circumstances could do otherwise."
When it became clear that Morgan would not relinquish her seat, the bus driver threatened to have her arrested, and Morgan challenged him to follow through on his threat. The Greyhound bus driver drove the bus to a county jail in Saluda, Middlesex County, Virginia, where a sheriff's deputy boarded the bus with a warrant for Morgan's arrest. Refusing to leave the bus, Morgan took the deputy's warrant, tore it to pieces, and threw them out the window of the bus. When the deputy attempted to physically remove Morgan from her seat, she struggled. "He touched me. That's when I kicked him in a very bad place."
A second deputy then entered to bus to assist in removing Morgan. When the second deputy attempted to gain control of her, Morgan clawed him and ripped his uniform. "I was going to bite him," she recalled to Morello, "but he was dirty, so I clawed him instead." When the deputy threatened to use his nightstick, Morgan replied, "We'll whip each other." Morgan was eventually dragged from the bus and jailed in Saluda. She recalls yelling to African Americans passing outside the window to contact her minister and notify her family of her situation. Morgan's mother arrived on the same day and posted the $500 bail for her daughter's release.
Morgan was ordered to return to Middlesex County to stand for trial, where she plead guilty to resisting arrest and was fined $100, but she refused to plead guilty to violating the state's segregation laws. Morgan's lawyer, Spottswood Robinson III, utilized a unique legal strategy by arguing that enforcing segregation on busses traveling between states violated federal laws regarding interstate commerce. Though Robinson would have preferred to challenge state segregation laws, by restricting his arguments to federal commerce Robinson was able to argue that the case fell under federal jurisdiction. The Middlesex County courts disagreed with Robinson's argument and ordered Morgan to pay $10 for violating state laws.
Took Case to the U.S. Supreme Court
Robinson appealed Morgan's case to the Virginia Supreme Court, where the court ruled against Morgan a second time. It was during this time that the case drew the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who sent Thurgood Marshall (later the first African American to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court) and William Hastie, the dean of Howard University's Law School, to assist Robinson in preparing the case for the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court case of Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia began on March 27, 1946, almost two years after the incident occurred. Marshal and Hastie continued to argue that Virginia state laws were in violation of interstate commerce, essentially asserting that federally regulated commercial transactions, such as those governing interstate travel, could not be subordinate to state laws. On June 3, the Court ruled 6-1 in favor of Marshall and Hastie's arguments. The majority opinion held that state laws could not supersede congressional mandates but did not address the legality of state segregation.
Greyhound Bus and other interstate travel companies were ordered to institute a desegregated policy; however, drivers and bus companies in some states refused to acknowledge the Court's decision. In 1947, Bayard Rustin, who later gained fame within the civil rights movement for organizing a major march in Washington D.C., led an interracial group of eight whites and eight African Americans on a mission to travel on interstate busses through four southern states to promote and test compliance to the newly imposed federal regulations. Along the ride, called the "Journey of Reconciliation," the activists sung the protest song "You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow," which contained the lyric "Get on the bus, sit anyplace, 'cause Irene Morgan won her case." Twelve of the sixteen bus riders were arrested for refusing to move to segregated seating.
Became a Forgotten Icon
Within a few years of her case, Morgan's role in the civil rights movement was largely forgotten, though the legal precedent set by her case became a lynch pin in later legal battles to attack the foundations of segregation. Morgan continued to take an active role in the civil rights movement by distributing flyers for desegregation in Baltimore and visiting various civil rights committees, but she did so often without revealing her own role in the Virginia court case, preferring to remain among the nameless hundreds of everyday citizens who were joining in the struggle against institutionalized racism.
At a Glance …
Born Irene Amos on April 9, 1917, in Baltimore, MD; died on August 10, 2007, in Gloucester, Virginia; married Sherwood Morgan Sr. (died 1948); married Stanley Kirkaldy, 1949 (died 2006); children: Sherwood Morgan Jr., Brenda Morgan Bacquie. Education: St. John's University, BS in communications, 1985; Queens University, MA in urban studies, 1990.
Career: Childcare and cleaning services, 1949-2000.
Awards: Presidential Citizens Medal, 2001.
Morgan's first husband died in 1948, after which she met and married Stanley Kirkaldy, the owner of a dry-cleaning business. After their marriage, the couple moved to New York City, where Morgan started a business that provided domestic cleaning coupled with childcare services. By the time of Rosa Parks's historic struggle, which began in 1955 and resulted in the desegregation of all public transportation, Morgan was only passively involved in the civil rights movement.
In the 1980s, Morgan entered and won a radio contest offering a scholarship to study at St. John's University. She received a bachelor's degree in communications at age sixty-eight and continued at Queen's University, where, in 1990, at age seventy-three, she earned a master's degree in urban studies. Morgan remained involved in combating injustice within her own community—as when she wrote letters to the pope protesting a situation in which a Haitian family had been denied entrance into a parochial school in New York.
Honored as a Pioneer for Civil Rights
In 2000, researchers preparing for Gloucester's 350th anniversary celebration uncovered information about Morgan's connection to the county. Representatives of the Virginia state government invited Morgan to return to Gloucester as part of the celebration, in a day called "A Homecoming for Irene Morgan." Morgan accepted and was honored by state officials at the celebration, where it was announced that four scholarships had been established in Morgan's honor. Morgan was modest about her personal accomplishments by declaring in numerous interviews that her acts were not extraordinary. When offered an honorary doctorate from the prestigious Howard University in Washington D.C., Morgan refused on the basis that she had not earned the degree.
In 2001, acknowledgement of Morgan's role came again from Washington, D.C., when she was chosen by the Clinton administration to receive the Presidential Citizens Medal, which is considered the second highest presidential honor after the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The government citation read in part, "When Irene Morgan boarded a bus for Baltimore in the summer of 1944, she took the first step on a journey that would change America forever."
Though the twenty-first century saw Morgan's return to the spotlight, she continued to live an unassuming life, eventually moving from New York to Gloucester, after an illness left her husband a quadriplegic. Stanley Kirkaldy died in 2006, and Morgan was soon diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. She died on August 10, 2007, while living at her granddaughter's home in Virginia. In the wake of her death, numerous newspapers ran stories detailing Morgan's trial and her effect on the civil rights movement.
Morgan's family recalled her life as dignified, moral, and honorable, both as a civil rights leader and as a citizen. "She always taught us that if you know you're right, it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks," said her daughter, Brenda Bacquie, to Morello. "It's a moral thing. It's something you have to do. She doesn't see herself as a hero. She saw something that had to be done, and she rushed in, like all heroes."
Daily Press (Newport, VA), August 19, 2007.
New York Times, August 13, 2007.
Washington Post, July 30, 2000.
"Civil Rights Pioneer, Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, Dies in 90," Gloucester Institute,http://www.gloucesterinstitute.org/index.asp?bid=166 (December 12, 2007).
"Irene Morgan, 1917-2007: Articles on Irene Morgan," Robin Washington Online,http://www.robinwashington.com/jimcrow/2_journey.html (December 12, 2007).
Wormser, Richard, "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow," PBS Online,http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_morgan.html (December 12, 2007).
National Public Radio Special, "Fighting Jim Crow Before Rosa Parks," recorded, August 15, 2007.
—Micah L. Issitt