April 9, 1917|
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
|Died||August 10, 2007
Gloucester County, Virginia, U.S.
Irene Amos Morgan (April 9, 1917 – August 10, 2007), later known as Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, was an African-American woman who was arrested in Middlesex County, Virginia, in 1944 under a state law for segregation, although she was riding an interstate bus that operated under federal law and regulations. She refused to give up her seat in what the driver said was the "white" section.
Morgan consulted with attorneys to appeal her conviction. With the help of William H. Hastie, the former governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands and later a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and Thurgood Marshall, legal counsel of the NAACP, her case, Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, 328 U.S. 373 (1946), was taken to the United States Supreme Court. In 1946 in a landmark decision, the Court ruled that the Virginia law was unconstitutional, as the Commerce clause protected interstate traffic.
Morgan was married twice. She had two children, a son and a daughter, with her first husband Sherwood Morgan Sr., who died in 1948. She then married Stanley Kirkaldy, with whom she ran a child-care center in Queens, New York. She received her bachelor's degree from St. John’s University in New York City when she was 68 years old. Five years later Morgan earned a master's degree in Urban Studies from Queens College.
In 1944, the 27-year-old Irene Morgan was traveling to Baltimore, Maryland, when she was arrested and jailed in Virginia for refusing to sit in a segregated section on an interstate Greyhound bus. Although interstate transportation was supposed to be desegregated, the state enforced segregated seating within its borders.
When Morgan refused to change her seat, the bus driver stopped in Middlesex County, Virginia, and summoned the sheriff. When he tried to arrest Morgan, she tore up the arrest warrant, kicked the sheriff in the groin, and fought with the deputy who tried to pull her off the bus. She was convicted of violating state law for segregation on buses and other public transportation. Morgan pleaded guilty to the charge of resisting arrest and was fined $100. However, she refused the guilty plea for violating Virginia's segregation law.
Morgan appealed her case. After exhausting appeals in state courts, she and her lawyers took her case on constitutional grounds to the federal courts, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1946, the justices agreed to hear the case.
Her case, Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, 328 U.S. 373 (1946), was argued by William H. Hastie, the former governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands and later a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP was co-counsel. He later was appointed as a US Supreme Court justice.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-1 in 1946 that Virginia's state law enforcing segregation on interstate buses was unconstitutional. Hastie and Marshall used an innovative strategy to brief and argue the case. Instead of relying upon the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment, they argued successfully that segregation on interstate travel violated the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
"If something happens to you which is wrong, the best thing to do is have it corrected in the best way you can," said Morgan. "The best thing for me to do was to go to the Supreme Court."
In 1960, in Boynton v. Virginia, the Supreme Court extended the Morgan ruling to bus terminals used in interstate bus service. African Americans continued to be ejected or arrested when they tried to integrate such facilities, as Southern states refused to obey Morgan v. Virginia. They staged numerous non-violent demonstrations using interstate buses and bus terminals, such as the Freedom Rides of 1961. White Southerners attacked the Freedom Riders, attracting renewed national media attention to the South's Jim Crow system.
Morgan's case inspired the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, during which 16 activists from the Chicago-based Congress of Racial Equality rode on interstate buses through the Upper South to test the enforcement of the Supreme Court's ruling. The activists divided themselves between the interstate Greyhound and Trailways bus lines. They usually placed an interracial pair in the white-area of the bus. Other activists, disguised as ordinary passengers, rode in the racial sections "reserved" for them by segregation law.
The group traveled uneventfully through Virginia, but when they reached North Carolina, they encountered arrests and violence. By the end of the Journey, the protesters had conducted over 24 "tests," and endured 12 arrests and dangerous mob violence. In a flagrant violation of the Morgan decision, North Carolina police arrested the civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. A jury convicted him and he was sentenced to 22 days on a chain gang for violating the state's segregation laws, although he had been riding on an interstate bus.
The 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, ahead of its time in the use of tactics of nonviolent direct action, inspired the highly publicized Freedom Rides of 1961, also organized by CORE.
Irene Morgan was a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In later life, Morgan moved from New York City to Gloucester County, Virginia. She died on August 10, 2007, at her daughter's home, at 90 years of age.