Morgan v. Virginia (1946)


In Morgan v. Virginia, decided on June 3, 1946, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Virginia law requiring racial segregation on commercial interstate buses as a violation of the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. The appellant, Irene Morgan, was riding a Greyhound bus from Hayes Store, in Gloucester County, to Baltimore, Maryland, in 1944 when she was arrested and convicted in Saluda for refusing to give up her seat to a white person. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed appeals on her behalf, and after the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled against Morgan in 1945, the U.S. Supreme Court heard her arguments. The case came near the end of a string of decisions, dating back to 1878, in which various courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, had found that the commerce clause did not support state laws that regulated commercial interstate passenger travel. Morgan v. Virginia was not a typical civil rights case in that it did not comment on a state’s right to segregate white people from Black people. Still, Morgan’s refusal to give up her seat foreshadowed Rosa Parks’s more famous action a decade later and marked an early and important victory in the civil rights movement.

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 failed to comply. “I refused to move,” she told an interviewer years later. “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.'” When the sheriff produced a warrant, Morgan suggested that it could be no such thing; he didn’t even know her name. “So I just took it and tore it up and just threw it out the window,” she said. “So then he put his hands on me, you know, to arrest me.” She kicked him in the genitals. “I started to bite him but he looked dirty, so I couldn’t bite him,” she said, recalling that by then “he was turning all colors.”

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. Spottswood W. Robinson III, 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.

Legal Background

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 the Fourteenth Amendment to 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.


According to the Afro American newspaper in Washington, D.C., the ruling in Morgan v. Virginia “came like an earthquake Monday and shook [Virginia] from center to circumference.” The same article, however, suggested that no immediate changes seemed imminent, either in terms of bus company rules or the tendency of Black passengers to sit in the back. The Supreme Court ruling had conspicuously failed to articulate how and when integration of interstate travel should take place. Then, on August 15, 1946, Greyhound issued an internal memo titled, “Seating of Passengers in Coaches.” When buses traveled through states with segregation laws, the memo stated, “colored passengers [should] be seated from the rear forward, and white passengers from the front toward the rear.” This new, explicitly racial policy was intended to “promote the comfort, safety and security of all the passengers.”

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 William M. Tuck, 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 Oliver Hill. Irene Morgan Kirkaldy died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease on August 10, 2007, at her daughter’s home in Hayes.

January 14, 1878
In Hall v. DeCuir, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a Louisiana anti-segregation law is unconstitutional because it interferes with interstate commerce.
March 2, 1888
Mississippi passes a law requiring all railroads to provide separate but equal accommodations.
June 1889
The Mississippi state Supreme Court explicitly limits to intrastate passengers the application of a state law requiring segregated.
March 3, 1890
In Louisville, New Orleans and Texas Railway Company v. Mississippi, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that states cannot pass laws that regulate commercial passenger travel that crosses state lines.
In State ex rel. Abbott v. Hicks, the Louisiana state Supreme Court rules that Louisiana segregation law cannot be enforced against interstate passengers.
May 18, 1896
In Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that Louisiana's separate-but-equal segregation law is constitutional.
May 31, 1910
In Chiles v. Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, the U.S. Supreme Court allows private companies but not states to make segregation rules segregating interstate passenger travel.
August 1932
Two African American women, Bessie Nelson and Mamie Kinchlowe, are ejected from a Greyhound bus in Alexandria, jailed for more than a week, and fined for refusing to take seats in the rear.
A New Jersey appeals court upholds the conviction of two African American women who refused to sit in the rear of a Greyhound bus in Alexandria.
January 16, 1943
Two Navy Department clerks, Mildred Turpin and Caroline Johnson, are jailed in Clarendon for refusing to sit in the rear of a bus traveling from Washington, D.C., to their home in Arlington.
July 16, 1944
Irene Morgan is arrested in Saluda for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Greyhound bus bound for Baltimore. She is also charged with resisting arrest after a Middlesex County sheriff and deputy forcibly remove her from the bus.
October 18, 1944
In Middlesex County Circuit Court, and with Spottswood William Robinson III as her attorney, Irene Morgan pleads guilty to resisting arrest. She is convicted of failing to yield her seat to a white passenger on an interstate bus. She refuses to pay the $10.
February 19, 1945
An African American woman, Tonito Holmes, of Alexandria, is beaten and removed from a Greyhound bus in Johnson City, Tennessee, for refusing to move to the rear.
June 6, 1945
The Supreme Court of Appeals unanimously affirms Irene Morgan's conviction for violating Virginia's segregation ordinance on interstate carriers.
October 1945
Irene Morgan, convicted of violating a Virginia segregation law on interstate carriers, appeals her case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
March 27, 1946
The U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the case of Morgan v. Virginia. Thurgood Marshall and William H. Hastie lead the defense, with Spottswood William Robinson III sitting at the counsel's table.
June 3, 1946
In Morgan v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Virginia's law requiring racial segregation in interstate public conveyances.
August 1, 1946
The Greyhound bus company issues an internal memo titled, "Seating of Passengers in Coaches." It requires segregated seating when Greyhound buses are traveling through states with segregation laws.
October 15, 1946
An anonymously written letter to the NAACP chides the organization for celebrating its legal victory in Morgan v. Virginia, arguing that little has actually changed.
April 9, 1947
The Journey of Reconciliation, launched by white and African American activists to test whether interstate buses have desegregated, leaves Washington, D.C.
Sherwood Morgan, husband of Irene Morgan, dies.
Irene Morgan marries Stanley Kirkaldy, a dry cleaner, and moves to Queens, New York.
June 5, 1950
In Henderson v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that segregation of dining cars on interstate railroads violates the Interstate Commerce Act.
The federal Interstate Commerce Commission makes two rulings that effectively end segregation in all commercial interstate travel.
December 1, 1955
Rosa Parks is arrested after failing to yield her seat to a white person on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her action leads to the Montgomery bus boycott.
December 5, 1960
In Boynton v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that segregated services, such as shelters and restaurants, intended for the use of interstate bus passengers are unconstitutional.
May 4, 1961
The first Freedom Rides leave Washington, D.C. White and African American activists hope to test adherence to anti-segregation rulings that cover commercial interstate travel.
During its 350th anniversary celebration, Gloucester County honors Irene Morgan Kirkaldy as a pioneer of the civil rights movement.
President Bill Clinton awards the Presidential Citizens Medal to Irene Morgan Kirkaldy for her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Greyhound bus in Virginia in 1944.
Irene Morgan Kirkaldy receives the NAACP's Oliver W. Hill Freedom Fighter Award.
August 10, 2007
Irene Morgan Kirkaldy dies of complications from Alzheimer's disease at her daughter's home in Hayes.
  • Arsenault, Raymond. Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Barnes, Catherine A. Journey from Jim Crow: The Desegregation of Southern Transit. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
  • Catsam, Derek Charles. Freedom’s Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides (Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century). Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008.
  • Lofgren, Charles A. The Plessy Case: A Legal-Historical Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Nieman, Donald G., ed. Black Southerners and the Law, 1865–1900. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.
  • Palmore, Joseph R. “The Not-So-Strange Career of Interstate Jim Crow: Race, Transportation, and the Dormant Commerce Clause, 1878–1946.” Virginia Law Review 83, no. 8 (November 1997): 1773–1817.
  • 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.
APA Citation:
Catsam, Derek & Wolfe, Brendan. Morgan v. Virginia (1946). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/morgan-v-virginia-1946.
MLA Citation:
Catsam, Derek, and Brendan Wolfe. "Morgan v. Virginia (1946)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 12 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2023, July 11
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