Eleven years before Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks defied segregation laws by refusing to give up their seats to a White passenger on a bus, Irene Morgan was traveling from Virginia back to Maryland on a bus when the driver ordered her to give up her seat to a White couple. She refused and fought her arrest all the way to the Supreme Court. Her action would pave the way for activists like Colvin and Parks to continue the fight against segregation.
Morgan was born on April 9, 1917, in Baltimore, Maryland, to Robert and Ethel Amos, who were formerly enslaved. Morgan had to drop out of high school in her teens to work odd jobs to support her family amid The Great Depression. She later married Sherwood Morgan, a man she met while working at a production line at the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft. Morgan and her husband had two children.
At the time she refused to give up her seat to a White couple, her mother had moved to Virginia, which was enforcing segregation through Jim Crow laws. On July 16, 1944, Morgan boarded a Greyhound bus to return home to her husband and children in Maryland after visiting her mother’s home in Virginia. Some sources said she was traveling to Maryland for a doctor’s appointment after having recovered from a recent miscarriage.
When Morgan entered the bus, she sat in the “Colored Section”, several rows from the back of the bus. Soon, the white area of the bus filled while the back of the bus still had seats. When a young White couple boarded and needed seats, the White driver R.P. Kelly told Morgan and the African-American woman seated next to her to surrender their seats and move further to the back of the bus. Morgan refused.
“I was shocked at first and then slowly realized he was serious,” she wrote years later. As Morgan refused to obey the driver, he drove to the Middlesex County town of Saluda and stopped outside the jail to have Morgan arrested. Per Greyhound policy, a driver had the right to control the seating of passengers and the right to change the seating. Passengers who did not comply with the policy could be charged with a misdemeanor and pay a fine.
When a police officer boarded Morgan’s bus and served her with an arrest warrant, she tore up the arrest warrant and threw it out a window. Unlike Rosa Parks, Morgan had not been trained in nonviolent civil disobedience. As things started getting heated up, the African-American woman seated next to Morgan vacated her seat with a baby in her arms. At this moment, the officer tried to grab Morgan’s arm to arrest her.
“When he put his hands on me to arrest me,” Morgan later recalled, “well I was furious with him at the time, and that’s when I kicked him. I started to bite him, but he looked dirty so I couldn’t bite him . . . . He was bowed over, he was really in pain.”
Morgan was eventually arrested and charged with resisting arrest and violating the state’s segregation statute. After being in custody for several hours, her mother got her released on bail. Morgan pleaded guilty to resisting arrest and paid the $100 fine, however, she refused to pay the $10 fine for violating the segregation law.
“I’d paid my money. I was sitting where I was supposed to sit,” she later said.
Refusing to pay the fine started a trial process that eventually landed at the Supreme Court. The NAACP, which had heard about her case and was seeking a test case over segregated interstate transport, started handling her case. Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the Supreme Court’s first Black Justice, was one of Morgan’s lawyers.
In Irene Morgan v Commonwealth of Virginia, Morgan and her lawyers argued against the constitutionality of the transit laws of Virginia in March 1946. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Morgan’s favor in June 1946. Justice Stanley F. Reed wrote that Virginia’s transit laws were unconstitutional and that “seating arrangements for the different races in interstate motor travel require a single, uniform rule to promote and protect national travel,” a report by Black Women Radicals stated. The report said the ruling implied that bus companies would have to have racially integrated seating.
Even though some states still did not always comply, Morgan’s actions helped further the cause of the organization for racial and economic equality in America.
She lost her husband in 1948 and married Stanley Kirklady. She went on to earn her Bachelor’s degree in Communications from St. John’s University in 1985. At age 72, she also received a Master’s degree in Urban Studies from Queens College in 1990. For her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, Morgan, before her death in 2007, received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Bill Clinton in 2001 and the Freedom Fighter Award from the NAACP the following year.
“When Irene Morgan boarded a bus for Baltimore in the summer of 1944,” her Presidential Citizens Medal award citation read, “she took the first step on a journey that would change America forever.”