BY WALTER OPINDE
Irene Kirkaldy Morgan made a courageous and solemn decision in July 1944, it would later turn into one of the first major advancements in the American Civil Rights Activism.
Morgan was born on April 9, 1917, in Baltimore, Maryland. On a July morning in 1944, recovering from a miscarriage, Morgan boarded a Greyhound bus in Gloucester, Virginia. She was returning to her home in Baltimore, MD. She selected a seat in a section of the back of the bus designated for black passengers. A half hour into the trip, a white couple boarded the crowded bus and the bus driver, under the authority given to him by Jim Crow laws and segregation practices, demanded that Morgan give up her seat.
Raised in a religious family that discouraged questioning authority, Morgan decided that her rights outweighed her obedience and she refused to give up her seat. The bus driver drove directly to a local jail, and a sheriff’s deputy boarded the bus and handed her a warrant for her arrest. Morgan tore up the warrant and kicked the officer when he tried to grab her.
Morgan’s stand against discrimination and segregation landed her in jail after which, she and her lawyer- Robinson Spottswood III, decided to plead guilty to the charge of resisting arrest but innocent of violating the Virginia segregation law. Robinson argued that the segregation law violated the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. Irene Morgan thereby lost her case, but with the help of the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall, it was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justices heard arguments in Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, and handed down a landmark decision for Civil Rights. On June 3, 1946, they agreed that segregation violated the Constitution’s protection of interstate commerce. This decision gave a serious blow to segregation laws, and the South refused to enforce the ruling. In response, a group of civil rights activists rode buses and trains across states in the South in 1947, named the Journey of Reconciliation. The activists immortalized Irene Kirkaldy in their rally song, “You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow,” singing “Get on the bus, sit anyplace, ‘Cause Irene Morgan won her case.”
Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia served as a catalyst for further court rulings and the Civil Rights movement as a whole. Eight years later, the Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation violated Equal Rights Protection as stated in the 14th Amendment. In 1955, Rosa Parks followed Irene’s footsteps and famously refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama.
For her actions, Kirkaldy received numerous awards, including the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second-highest civilian award in the country. Irene Morgan Kirkaldy died on 10th August, 2007. Her act of courage served as a vehicle for change for the betterment of African-Americans throughout the United States.
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