Boynton v. Virginia: 1960

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Boynton v. Virginia: 1960

Appellant: Bruce Boynton.
Defendant: Commonwealth of Virginia
Appellant Claim: Unlawful arrest
Chief Defense Lawyer: Walter E. Rogers
Chief Lawyer for Appellant: Thurgood Marshall
Justices: Hugo L. Black, William J. Brennan, Jr., Tom C. Clark, William 0. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, John Marshall Harlan, Potter Stewart, Earl Warren, Charles E. Whittaker.
Place: Washington, D.C.
Date of Decision: December 5, 1960
Decision: Court upheld appellant's claim

SIGNIFICANCE: In the often acrimonious battle between the federal government and individual states over racial segregation, Bruce Boynton's suit marked a major breakthrough. For the first time, Washington sent a clear message that interstate facilities were for the use of all citizens, irrespective of color.

In 1958, Bruce Boynton, a black student at Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C., took a Trailways bus from Washington to his home in Montgomery, Alabama. On a 40-minute layover at the Trailways Bus Terminal in Richmond, Virginia, the passengers went inside to eat. Boynton entered the segregated restaurant, sat in the white section and ordered a sandwich and tea. When asked to move to the colored section he refused, saying that as an interstate passenger he was protected by federal anti-segregation laws. Declining to leave, he was arrested by local police, charged with trespass, and fined $10.

The Commonwealth of Virginia conceded that the conviction could not stand if anything in federal law or the Constitution gave Boynton a right to service in the restaurant. But it found no such right. Lawyers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) petitioned the Supreme Court on grounds that Boynton was entitled to such protection under the Constitution.

Pleading that case before the Supreme Court on October 12, 1960, was Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first black Supreme Court Justice. He maintained that Boynton's arrest placed an unreasonable burden on commerce and denied him the equal protection of the law, both points with far-reaching implications. However, the Supreme Court chose not to address this petition from a constitutional standpoint after the Justice Department, intervening as a friend of the court, raised the issue of the Interstate Commerce Act, which expressly forbade "unjust discrimination."

For the act to apply, the relationship between restaurant and terminal had to be clarified. When Trailways built the terminal in 1953 it contracted with Bus Terminal Restaurant of Richmond, Inc. for the latter to provide dining facilities for passengers on Trailways buses. The only interest that Trailways had in the restaurant came in the form of the annual rental, $30,000, plus a percentage of the gross profits. So was the restaurant subject to the same federal provisions as Trailways?

No, argued Walter E. Rogers, attorney for Virginia. He contended that the restaurant, as private property, fell outside the scope of the Interstate Commerce Act. Boynton, he said, had been justly convicted.

Court Splits, but for Boynton

On December 5, 1960, the Supreme Court decided 7-2 in favor of Boynton, the first time since 1946 it had divided on a matter of racial segregation. A strong factor in the Court's decision had been the earlier testimony of the restaurant manager who conceded that, although the restaurant received "quite a bit of business" from local people, it was primarily for the service of Trailways passengers. Describing this as "much of an understatement," Justice Hugo L. Black, in writing the majority verdict, added:

Interstate passengers have to eat, and they have a right to expect that this essential transportation food service would be rendered without discrimination prohibited by the Interstate Commerce Act. We are not holding that every time a bus stops at a wholly independent roadside restaurant the act applies [but] where circumstances show that the terminal and restaurant operate as an integral part of the bus carrier's transportation service an interstate passenger need not inquire into documents of title or contractual agreements in order to determine whether he has a right to be served without discrimination.

Anticipating the Supreme Court's decision, Bus Terminal Restaurants, Inc. of Raleigh, North Carolina announced that, as of August 1960, none of its establishments would be racially segregated.

The impact of this case was immense. For the first time a bridge was built between the federal government and the civil rights movement. While many obstacles remained to be conquered in the fight for racial equality, henceforth it would be a struggle fought together.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

The Negro History Bulletin Vol. 26, 15. New York: Associated Publishers, 1972.

Wasby, Stephen L., Anthony A. D'Amato, and Rosemary Metrailer. Desegregation From Brown To Alexander. Carbondale, Ill.: South Illinois University Press, 1977.

Witt, Elder. Guide To The Supreme Court. Washington: Congressional Quarterly, 1990.