Boynton v. Virginia 1960

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Boynton v. Virginia 1960

Petitioner: Bruce Boynton

Respondent: Commonwealth of Virginia

Petitioner's Claim: That arresting a black interstate bus passenger for refusing to leave a whites-only section of a bus station restaurant violated the Interstate Commerce Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Thurgood Marshall

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Walter E. Rogers

Justices for the Court: William J. Brennan, Jr., Tom C. Clark, William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, John Marshall Harlan II, Potter Stewart, Chief Justice Earl Warren

Justices Dissenting: Hugo L. Black, Charles E. Whittaker

Date of Decision: December 5, 1960

Decision: Ruled in favor of Boynton by finding that restaurant facilities in bus terminals that primarily exist to serve interstate bus passengers can not discriminate based on race according to the Interstate Commerce Act.

Significance: The decision supporting federal government actions in desegregating certain public facilities paved the way for further civil rights activism. Resistance to the ruling by many Southerners led to the Freedom Rides on interstate buses by young activists the following summer. The Rides in addition to other protest activities the next two years led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act banning racial discrimination in all public facilities.

Businesses known as "common carriers" are transportation companies that advertise to the public to carry passengers for a fee. States regulate carriers that operate solely within their borders, but the federal government through authority in the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution regulate carriers involved in interstate (traveling from one state to another) or foreign travel.

To regulate various aspects of business between states Congress passed the landmark Interstate Commerce Act in 1887 and amended it through later years. As stated in Section 203, the act applied to "all vehicles . . . together with all facilities and property operated or controlled by any such carrier or carriers, and used in the transportation of passengers or property in interstate or foreign commerce." Further, Section 216(d) of Part II of the act states,

It shall be unlawful for any common carrier [using a] motor vehicle engaged in interstate . . . commerce to make, give, or cause any undue or unreasonable preference [favorite choice] or advantage to any particular person . . . in any respect whatsoever; or to subject any particular person . . . to any unjust discrimination [treating individuals in similar situations differently] or any unjust or unreasonable prejudice [bias] or disadvantage in any respect whatsoever. . .

Based on the act, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Mitchell v. United States (1941) that if a railroad provides dining cars, then passengers must be treated equally by the dining car service. Later in Henderson v. United States (1950) the Court further affirmed that service to passengers in railroad dining cars could not be separated according to race (racial segregation) by curtains or even signs.

Bruce Boynton

In 1958 Bruce Boynton, a black student at Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C., boarded a Trailways bus in Washington bound for his home in Montgomery, Alabama. Leaving Washington at 8:00 pm, the bus stopped at about 10:40 pm at the Trailways Bus Terminal in Richmond, Virginia. Given a forty minute stopover, Boynton got off the bus to eat a bite at the Bus Terminal Restaurant located in the terminal building. The restaurant was racially segregated (keeping racial groups from mixing), divided into sections for whites and blacks. Boynton proceeded to sit down on a stool in the white section and ordered a sandwich and tea. After refusing to move to the colored section at the request of the waitress, the assistant manager appeared and ordered Boynton to move to the other section. He insisted he was an interstate bus passenger protected by federal desegregation laws (prohibiting the practice of separating races) and did not have to move. As a result, a local police officer arrested Boynton charging him with misdemeanor trespassing. The Police Justice's Court of Richmond found Boynton guilty of violating Virginia state trespass law and fined him ten dollars.

Boynton appealed his conviction to the Hustings Court of Richmond asserting that "he had a federal right . . . to be served without discrimination by this restaurant used by the bus carrier for the accommodation of its interstate passengers." He was on the property with "authority of law." He argued that since the restaurant "was an integral part of the bus service for interstate passengers" the use of the Virginia trespass law violated the Interstate Commerce Act as well as various parts of the U.S. Constitution including the Fourteenth Amendment. The amendment reads, "nor shall any State . . . deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Nevertheless, Hustings Court confirmed his conviction.

Appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court led to the same results. With the assistance of lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Boynton next took his constitutional arguments to the U.S. Supreme Court which agreed to hear his case.

A Part of Bus Service

Presenting arguments for Boynton in October of 1960 was the future first black Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. Marshall had played a key role in the earlier landmark victory in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) involving discrimination in public schools. Marshall pressed the issue of constitutional violations including the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. The U.S. Justice Department also joined the case on behalf of Boynton raising the issue that Boynton faced "unjust discrimination" in violation of the Interstate Commerce Act. In an unusual move, the Supreme Court decided to not hear the case based on Boynton's charges of constitutional violations, but instead chose to rule on the conflict between the Interstate Commerce Act and the Virginia state law in this case.

The state of Virginia argued that the Bus Terminal Restaurant of Richmond, Inc., was neither owned nor operated by the bus company. In fact, the restaurant served the general public as well as bus passengers. Being a private company, it was not subject to the same federal law restrictions as the interstate carrier, they argued.

Justice Hugo L. Black wrote the decision of the Court. Justice Black recalled the earlier Mitchell and Henderson decisions asserting that those decisions readily applied to all transportation services in terminals and terminal restaurants provided for passengers by interstate carriers. In fact, Black stated that the facilities did not even have to be owned or operated by the carrier, but simply "an integral [important] part of transportation" that they provide. Black commented, "Interstate passengers have to eat, and they have a right to expect that this essential . . . food service . . . would be rendered [provided] without discrimination prohibited by the Interstate Commerce Act."

To address in more detail the restaurant's arguments, Black explored the relationship between Trailways bus line and the restaurant. He claimed the contract between the two clearly showed that, though the restaurant was open to the general public, clearly its primary purpose was to serve bus passengers. The bus line owned the building in which it leased space to the restaurant company and the restaurant paid $30,000 annually to the bus line plus a percentage of profits. Black concluded it had "a single purpose . . . to serve passengers of one or more bus companies. . . " Trailways used the restaurant facilities regularly as if it owned it thus providing "continuous cooperative transportation services between the terminal, the restaurant and buses like Trailways."

Black wrote,

. . . if the bus carrier has volunteered to make terminal and restaurant facilities and services available to its interstate passengers as a regular part of their transportation, and the terminal and restaurant have acquiesced [agreed] and cooperated in this undertaking, the terminal and restaurant must perform these services without discriminations prohibited by the Act.

Therefore, Boynton "had a federal right to remain in the white portion of the restaurant. He was there under 'authority of law'—the Interstate Commerce Act. . . "


T he Boynton ruling was among many events fueling the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. One key black organizer during this period was Ella Josephine Baker. Born in Norfolk, Virginia, Baker quickly became involved in political activities concerning social justice and equality by the later 1920s. In the 1930s Baker joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as an assistant field secretary working to increase its Southern membership. In 1957 she was a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

To better organize the rising tide of nonviolent protests by black Americans in the 1950s, Baker founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), popularly known as Snick. Under Ella's direction, Snick quickly developed an aggressive approach to protests. Following the Boynton decision banning segregation of interstate bus facilities, Snick along with other organizations promoted the Freedom Rides of 1961. The Rides challenged segregationist policies along bus routes from Washington, D.C. to Jackson, Mississippi. After the Freedom Rides, Baker pursued voter registration efforts in the South in 1963. Later, Baker led Snick in protests against the Viet Nam War and pursued civil rights for blacks in Africa and Latin America. Ella Baker died in New York City at the age of eighty-three.

Black added that this decision did not mean that all independent roadside restaurants that a bus might stop at would need to comply with the anti-discrimination measures in the act, only those restaurants that "operate as an integral part of the . . . bus carrier's transportation service for interstate passengers." The Court, voting 7-2, reversed the trespass conviction and sent the case back to Virginia.

Freedom Riders

Angered by the Boynton decision many whites in the South ignored the ruling and continued segregationist policies for public facilities. In reaction to the Southern resistance, the "Freedom Rides" occurred in 1961. The Rides consisted of seven black and six white students riding two buses from Washington, D.C. destined for New Orleans, Louisiana. The students purposefully violated segregation policies on buses, public restrooms, terminal waiting areas, and restaurants along the way. Faced with violent reactions along the route, including one bus being firebombed, they ended their rides early at Jackson, Mississippi under guard of U.S. Marshalls. The Rides caught the attention of the public and Congress leading to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act banning racial segregation in all public facilities including restaurants and hotels.

Suggestions for further reading

Cashman, Sean D. African Americans and the Quest for Civil Rights, 1900-1990. New York: New York University Press, 1991.

Levine, Michael L. African Americans and Civil Rights: From 1619 to the Present. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1996.

Steinhorn, Leonard, and Barbara Diggs-Brown. By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1999.

Thermstrom, Stephan, and Abigail Thermstrom. America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.