Facts of the Case
The appellant in Morgan v. Virginia was Irene Morgan. Born Irene Amos on April 9, 1917, in Baltimore, she was the sixth of nine children raised by conservative Seventh-day Adventist parents. She married Sherwood Morgan, had two children, and during World War II (1939–1945) worked in a factory that manufactured B-26 Marauder bombers. In 1944 Morgan had a miscarriage. On July 16, after visiting her mother, Ethel Amos, in Hayes Store, Gloucester County, Morgan boarded a Greyhound bus en route to Baltimore, where she planned to reunite with her husband and consult a doctor.
Near Saluda, in Middlesex County, about twenty-six miles northwest of Hayes Store, two white passengers boarded the already crowded bus, and the driver asked Morgan and an African American woman with an infant to give up their seats. According to later court documents, “There were two vacant spaces upon the long rear seat, and six white passengers were standing. The bus driver requested [Morgan] and her seatmate … to change their seats and occupy the two vacant spaces on the rear seat.” When Morgan refused, and even attempted to prevent the other woman from complying, the bus driver drove to the jail in Saluda.
Greyhound company policy reserved “full control and discretion as to the seating of passengers and the right to change such seating at any time.” Virginia law, meanwhile, required buses to segregate their passengers on the basis of race. It invested drivers with the powers of “special policemen,” able to judge the race of patrons, change seating, eject uncooperative passengers, and make arrests when necessary. Failure to comply with a driver was a misdemeanor subject to a fine of between five and twenty-five dollars.
Morgan was charged in Middlesex County Circuit Court with resisting arrest and violating the state’s segregation statute. She was released on $500 bail, paid by her mother. On October 18, 1944, Morgan pleaded guilty to resisting arrest and agreed to pay a $100 fine. She refused to plead guilty on the segregation offense, however, and upon conviction, she refused to pay a fine of $10., an attorney from the Richmond firm of Hill, Martin, and Robinson, took her case, and with the support of the Richmond branches and the national office of the NAACP, prepared a series of appeals.
Morgan’s case was, in part, driven by the question of whether Greyhound rules, which allowed the reseating of passengers at the driver’s discretion, or Virginia law, which required racial segregation even in interstate commerce, had attempted to force Irene Morgan to the back of the bus. If it was the former, then perhaps the action was constitutional; if the latter, then it almost certainly was not.
The courts had long ruled against laws like Virginia’s. The so-called commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3) gives Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce, or business transacted across state lines. Dating to the nineteenth century, courts have read this to mean that only Congress, and not the states, can make laws that segregate or integrate interstate passengers.
On January 14, 1878, in the case of Hall v. DeCuir, the U.S. Supreme Court decided just that. At issue was a Reconstruction-era law in Louisiana that forbade segregation in transportation. When a nonwhite woman, Josephine DeCuir, was denied admission to a whites-only “ladies’ cabin” on a Mississippi River steamship, she sued. The statute appeared to be clear-cut, and DeCuir won both at trial and in the state supreme court. The commerce clause came into play, however, because the steamship on which DeCuir had been a passenger, the Governor Allen, traveled between New Orleans and Vicksburg, Mississippi. Although DeCuir herself had not left Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court viewed her case as an instance of interstate commerce. As a result, the court ruled that the state’s antisegregation law, when applied to a steamship that left Louisiana, was unconstitutional.
A decade later, in the post-Reconstruction era, Louisiana and other southern states moved to segregate white and Black people. On March 2, 1888, Mississippi passed a law requiring all passenger railroads to provide separate but equal accommodations. When the Louisville, New Orleans and Texas Railway Company did not comply, the state sued. In June 1889 the state supreme court, perhaps with the DeCuir decision in mind, explicitly limited the application of the law to intrastate passengers. On March 3, 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Louisville, New Orleans and Texas Railway Company v. Mississippi, upheld that ruling.
In both opinions, the Supreme Court held that states could not pass laws that regulated commercial passenger travel that crossed state lines. As a result, southern states carefully limited their segregation laws to intrastate travel. Not surprisingly, segregation persisted in interstate travel regardless of what the courts ruled, and in February 1892 a group of anti-Jim Crow activists in New Orleans made plans to test their state’s segregation law by seating an African American passenger in a whites-only section of a train headed for Mobile, Alabama. Just weeks later, however, the state supreme court rendered their efforts moot. In State ex rel. Abbott v. Hicks, the court decided that Louisiana’s segregation law “could not be enforced against interstate passengers.” By inference it could be enforced against intrastate passengers, and that issue became the anti-Jim Crow group’s next test. After placing Homer Plessy, a Creole, in a whites-only car traveling within Louisiana, the activists prompted a case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896. But in Plessy v. Ferguson, the court upheld the principle of separate-but-equal accommodations.
Ten years later the African American attorney J. Alexander Chiles traveled by train from Washington, D.C., to his home in Lexington, Kentucky. He well understood the case law regarding segregation and interstate travel. When he took a seat in a whites-only car and was told to move, he explained that the Supreme Court had twice ruled otherwise. The police were called anyway and he was forcibly removed to a Blacks-only car. Chiles’s resulting suit against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company lost in Kentucky courts despite the fact that Chiles had been correct: Kentucky law excluded interstate travel from its segregation provisions. But the railroad had argued that it did not matter that the state was barred from regulating interstate commerce; the company itself was not so barred. In Chiles v. Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, decided on May 31, 1910, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. A private company could make whatever rules it wished in such matters and the court could not interfere. And if, as the court had decided in Plessy, it was reasonable for a state to enforce segregation, then it was reasonable for a railroad to do the same.
All of which created a confusing situation on the ground. In spite of court rulings striking down segregation laws that pertained to interstate travel, the rules of private companies—adopted to reflect the segregation laws of the southern states through which their vehicles traveled—allowed segregation to become a daily reality for passengers. In August 1932, two African American women, Bessie Nelson and Mamie Kinchlow, were ejected from a Greyhound bus in Alexandria, jailed for more than a week, and fined for refusing to take seats in the rear. They sued in a New Jersey district court, but in 1937 an appeals court upheld their convictions.
On January 16, 1943, two Navy Department clerks, Mildred Turpin and Caroline Johnson, boarded a bus in Washington, D.C., headed for their home in Arlington. According to reports in the African American press, the bus company had suspended its segregation rules for government employees. In this instance, however, the driver ordered the two women to the back of the bus and several police immediately arrived, “as if by pre-arrangement.” The women were jailed in Clarendon.
Another incident, also reported in the African American press, involved Tonito Holmes, of Alexandria, who on February 19, 1945, was beaten and then removed from a Greyhound bus in Johnson City, Tennessee, for refusing to move to the rear. She was fined $14.25.
Appeals Process and Supreme Court
Morgan’s lawyer, Spottswood Robinson, was soon joined by Thurgood Marshall and William H. Hastie, on behalf of the NAACP. Together they crafted a legal strategy that skirted theto the Constitution, which guaranteed equal protection and due process. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld separate-but-equal accommodations, and it would not be until Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, that this ruling would be overturned. Instead, Morgan’s lawyers relied on the commerce clause. Although nearly all the court rulings dating back to 1878 had, in effect, upheld segregation, they had relied on a similar reading of the Constitution: that the states could not regulate passenger travel that crossed state lines.
On June 6, 1945, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled against Morgan. The court acknowledged that Virginia law was not limited to intrastate travel. But it found that unlike in the DeCuir case, where state law and the steamship rules had conflicted, the bus company rules and state law were in accord. As such, interstate commerce was not burdened. The court did hold, however, that Morgan violated Virginia law in this case, regardless of Greyhound’s company rules.
In October 1945 Morgan appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court heard oral arguments on March 27, 1946, and Morgan’s lawyers emphasized that precedent was on their side: more than once, the Supreme Court had ruled that states could not impose segregation on passengers traveling across state lines. Virginia’s attorneys responded that integration in this instance would deprive white passengers of equal protection under the law. They also noted, contrary to their state’s supreme court ruling, that it was Greyhound, and not Virginia, implicitly enforcing segregation. (Although Greyhound reserved the right to reseat passengers, its policy was not explicitly based on the principle of segregation.) Finally, Virginia’s lawyers argued that white people and Black people must be separated because of their natural inclination to dislike one another. “Only the great Master who created and endowed mankind with these infirmities can eradicate them,” they wrote in their brief. “Until that occurs our government must be based upon the recognition that they still exist.”
On June 3, 1946, the Supreme Court ruled for Morgan, striking down the Virginia law and, by extension, all similar laws in other states that mandated segregation in interstate passenger travel. Justice Stanley Forman Reed, of Kentucky, wrote the majority opinion for the court. Justice Harold Burton, of Ohio, was the lone dissenter. Justices Wiley Rutledge, Hugo Black, and Felix Frankfurter wrote concurring opinions. Justice Robert Jackson, then presiding over the Nuremberg Trials, did not participate.
Reed’s opinion found that Virginia’s law clearly interfered with interstate commerce by making it necessary for carriers to establish different rules depending on which state line their vehicles crossed. Burton penned an adamant dissent, asserting that the court’s decision supplanted the role of Congress to establish uniformity in federal transportation if such laws were necessary for interstate commerce. Frankfurter and Black indicated that their sentiments lay with Burton, but that they embraced the principle of precedent and so supported the majority decision.
Other bus companies followed Greyhound’s lead, and African Americans pressured the NAACP to act. On October 15, 1946, an anonymous correspondent chided the organization for celebrating its legal victory prematurely: “Before the Irene Morgan case colored folks rode Jim Crow on Virginia Trailway Buses … After the Irene Morgan case they still ride Jim Crow and in both cases legally. Therefore why all the hullabaloo about this case?”
In 1947, the Congress of Racial Equality and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and not the NAACP, decided to informally test the law in four states of the Upper South, including Virginia. The so-called Journey of Reconciliation left Washington, D.C., on April 9, with one group of eight white and Black activists on a Greyhound bus and another interracial group of eight activists on a Trailways bus. In most instances, the bus companies passed the legal test. One exception involved an African American attorney who was arrested in Petersburg for refusing to move to the back. A Black porter at the station reportedly said, “What’s the matter with him? He’s crazy. Where does he think he is? We know how to deal with him. We ought to drag him off.”
The riders were met with violence in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where four activists were arrested. Another two were taken into custody in Asheville. After uneventful passage through Kentucky and Tennessee, another two arrests occurred in Virginia, one near Amherst and the other at Culpeper. The activists, attempting to educate the public about the Morgan case, chanted, “Get on the bus, sit anyplace/’Cause Irene Morgan won her case.”
Segregation in interstate commercial transportation did not end until almost a decade after the Morgan decision. In 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Henderson v. United States, outlawed segregation in the dining cars of interstate railroads. Then, in 1955, just after Brown v. Board of Education, two rulings by the Interstate Commerce Commission effectively integrated all interstate buses and trains. In Boynton v. Virginia (1960), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated services, such as shelters and restaurants, intended for the use of interstate bus passengers were also unconstitutional.
Although the court’s ruling relied on economic principles, Morgan v. Virginia is understood as an important early victory in the civil rights movement. White southern leaders, such as Virginia governor, saw the legal challenge as an affront to white supremacy. “If this policy of expansion of Federal activities into state fields continues it will result in the virtual abolition of the states,” he warned in his inaugural address in January 1946. In 1947, Charles Wallace Collins, in his book Whither Solid South?, was even more explicit, declaring that should the federal government intervene in “the civil rights of the individual American citizens, this country will have abandoned the moorings of its constitutional heritage in favor of stateism—the basic philosophy of the Russian system of government.”
These concerns led to the Dixiecrat movement among conservative white politicians in the South even as Morgan v. Virginia encouraged more civil resistance to segregation on the part of African Americans. Historians have long described Irene Morgan as a critical, if little known, precursor to Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–1956. The Journey of Reconciliation, meanwhile, helped set the stage for the more famous Freedom Rides that passed through Virginia in May 1961.
Morgan’s husband, Sherwood Morgan, died in 1948. In 1949, she married Stanley Kirkaldy, a dry cleaner, and moved to Queens, New York. In 2000, she was honored by Gloucester County as part of its 350th anniversary celebration. In 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded her a Presidential Citizens Medal, and in 2002 she received the NAACP’s Oliver W. Hill Freedom Fighter Award, named for the Virginia lawyer. Irene Morgan Kirkaldy died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease on August 10, 2007, at her daughter’s home in Hayes.