Photo credits: Josh Bergeron/Selma Times-Journal
Bruce Carter Boynton was an American civil rights leader who inspired the Freedom Riders movement. He advanced the cause of racial equality by a landmark supreme court case Boynton v. Virginia.
Boynton was the son of Amelia Boynton Robinson, a key organizer of the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965. She was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Medal in 1990. Boynton was heartbroken after seeing his mother brutally beaten by police officers; just because she was protesting in order to help blacks get registered to vote.
In 1958, Boynton ordered a cheeseburger while sitting in a whites-only part of a restaurant at a bus station in Richmond, Virginia. He was arrested for trespassing after he refused to leave the restaurant and spent one night in jail. He was a law student at Howard University at the time and decided to fight his arrest in court.
At trial, he was represented by Martin A. Martin. He lost his case but decided to appeal until finally, his case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The Boynton v. Virginia case was argued by Thurgood Marshall, who later became a justice of the Supreme Court. The court overturned Boynton’s conviction, affirming that racial segregation in public transportation was illegal.
In 2018, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson said of Boynton: “He did something that very few people would have the courage to do. He said no. To me, he’s on par with Rosa Parks,” referring to the Black woman who did not give up her seat in the front part of a segregated bus to a white man. Summarizing his impact, Thompson went on to say, “All he wanted was a cheeseburger, and he changed the course of history.”
Boynton’s actions inspired the Freedom Rides in 1961, where activists rode interstate buses through the Southern United States to protest segregated bus terminals. The Freedom Riders were arrested in a few southern states, including Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Their arrests prompted then-President John F. Kennedy to pass orders for strict enforcement of the federal anti-discrimination laws.
Boynton received a law degree from Howard University. He practiced as a civil rights attorney for most of his career until he retired. Later, Boynton served as Alabama’s first Black special prosecutor. Boynton died of cancer on November 24, 2020, at the age of 83. His death came just two weeks before the 60th anniversary of his landmark case.
The civil rights pioneer’s passing was publicly announced by former Alabama State Senator Henry Sanders.
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*BlackThen.com writer and historian Victor Trammell edited and contributed to this report.