Most of us are familiar with Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. in 1955. But few know about the first woman who refused to give up her seat to a white couple in Montgomery and, like Rosa Parks, was also arrested.
Her name was Irene Morgan, and in 1944, she boarded a Greyhound bus in Virginia, headed to Baltimore. Mrs. Morgan had been ill and was going to Baltimore to see a doctor. The mother of two was already sitting in the back but refused the driver’s order to give her seat to a white couple.
The bus driver stopped in Middlesex County, Va. and summoned the sheriff who attempted to arrest her. Morgan tore up the warrant, kicked the sheriff and fought the deputy who tried to drag her off the bus. She was jailed for resisting arrest and violating Virginia’s segregation law. She was fined $100 for resisting arrest and $10 for the segregation law. Even though she pleaded not guilty, she was found guilty anyway.
Morgan appealed her case on the segregation law conviction, and NAACP lawyers, led by Thurgood Marshall, took her case. Her lawyers argued that segregation in interstate travel violated the Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause.
On June 3, 1946 judge ruled that segregation in interstate travel was unconstitutional as “an undue burden on commerce.” Although the decision became law, Southern states refused to enforce it, and Jim Crow continued as a way of life in the South.
After the decision, a group of black and white activists traveled together in what was dubbed a “Journey of Reconciliation.” The two-week trip was dangerous and friends warned they would be jeopardizing their lives if they attempted interracial travel. The group limited their trip to the upper south only, and even there, safety was far from guaranteed.
Along the route, the travelers spoke at NAACP groups and churches, and endured numerous arrests for violating local segregation laws. In Chapel Hill, N.C., they were attacked by an angry mob of white cab drivers. Even the white minister who took them in was threatened and forced to evacuate his family from their home. (Source: You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow, a documentary).
On Jan. 27, 2001, Irene Morgan received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Bill Clinton. In 2000, Morgan was honored by Gloucester County, Va. during its 350th anniversary celebration.
Morgan was born in 1917. A Seventh Day Adventist, she was the sixth of nine children and, according to a 2000 Washington Post article by Carol Morello, “The Freedom Fighter a Nation Forgot,” she lives on Long Island and is a great-grandmother. During the interview, Morgan explained why she refused, stating, “I was just minding my own business. I was sitting where I was supposed to sit. [The deputy] touched me. That’s when I kicked him in a very bad place. He hobbled off, and another one came on. He was trying to put his hands on me to get me off. I was going to bite him, but he was dirty, so I clawed him instead. I ripped his shirt. We were both pulling at each other. He said he’d use his nightstick. I said, ‘We’ll whip each other.'”
Although her contributions in the struggle to strike down Jim Crow segregation are rarely written or known about, she is certainly a woman we should remember. To learn more about Irene Morgan, check the You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow website, www.robinwashington.com/jimcrow, and “Irene Morgan,” by Lea Setegn, TimesDispatch.com, Feb. 13, 2002.