Before Rosa Parks, a Woman Refused to Give Up Her Seat
In 1955, Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her actions were carefully planned as part of a civil rights protest against the city's segregated public transportation. Eleven years earlier, however, another African American woman, Irene Morgan, also refused to give up her seat, this time on a Greyhound bus in Virginia. What happened that day in July was not connected to any organized protest, but it nevertheless had an important impact on the nascent civil rights movement.
Morgan was born in Baltimore in
1917 and during World War II worked in a factory that produced B-26 bombers. On July 16, 1944, after visiting her mother in Virginia, she boarded a Greyhound bound for Baltimore.
The bus was crowded and when two white passengers boarded in Middlesex County, the driver asked Morgan and another woman to move to the back. Morgan refused. She even attempted to prevent the other woman—a young mother and her infant child—from moving, too.
The driver responded by pulling up to a nearby jail.
"I refused to move," Morgan later told an interviewer. "And that's when he [the bus driver] got off the bus, got the sheriff, and the sheriff said, 'I'm going to arrest you.' And I said, 'That's perfectly all right.'" (Link goes to autoplay media.)
The sheriff produced what he said was a warrant for her arrest, but Morgan told him that wasn't possible. He didn't even know her name. "So I just took it and tore it up and threw it out the window." She even kicked him when he attempted to arrest her. Eventually Morgan was taken into custody and charged with resisting arrest and with violating a Virginia law and that required the segregation of all interstate transportation. She pleaded guilty to the first charge and paid a $100 fine. But she pleaded not guilty to the second charge and refused to pay the $10 fine. Her case, therefore, went to court.
Morgan was quickly convicted, but she appealed. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Morgan v. Virginia. Morgan's lawyers noted that the Supreme Court had long ago decided that segregation in interstate travel was unconstitutional. (In Morgan's case, the Greyhound was traveling from Virginia to Maryland.) Therefore, the Virginia law that required such segregation must be struck down.
Virginia's lawyers responded that state law had not forced Morgan to move; it was the Greyhound driver who had done that. And he was merely following Greyhound rules, which the Supreme Court had no right to change. Besides, they argued, white and black people ought to be separate, if only because they are naturally inclined to be hostile toward one another. "Only the great Master who created and endowed mankind with [these hostilities] can eradicate them," they wrote in a brief. "Until that occurs our government must be based on the recognition that they still exist."
The Supreme Court disagreed, and on June 3, 1946, struck down the Virginia law. The victory did not immediately end segregation, even on Greyhound buses. (Terminals were still segregated, for instance, at least for awhile.) But it allowed activists to test the law and gave them leverage to force change. Some could be heard to chant: "Get on the bus, sit anyplace / 'Cause Irene Morgan won her case."
"You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!" Public Television's Documentary of the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, America's first Freedom Ride. Film produced by Robin Washington for Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 1995, 2007. Distributed by the American Program Service as videotape or DVD.