Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, whose defiance of white supremacy
while traveling through the Upper South in the summer of 1944 led to a Supreme Court decision
outlawing segregated seating on interstate bus lines, died Friday in Hayes, Va.
She was 90.
The cause was complications of
Alzheimer’s disease, said her granddaughter Janine Bacquie.
Irene Morgan’s fight against segregation took place a decade
before the modern civil rights movement changed America. Taken up by the N.A.A.C.P.
and argued before the Supreme Court by Thurgood Marshall, later the court’s
first black justice, it proved a forerunner to Rosa Parks’s storied
refusal to yield her seat on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala.
Mrs. Morgan, a worker in a plant that made World War II
bombers and the mother of two small children, was returning to her home in
Baltimore aboard a Greyhound bus in July 1944 after a visit to her mother in
Gloucester County, Virginia.
When the bus grew crowded, the driver told her to give her
seat to a white person. Mrs. Morgan refused, and when a sheriff’s deputy tried
to take her off the bus in Saluda, Va., she resisted.
“He put his hand on me to arrest me, so I took my foot and
kicked him,” she recalled in “You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow!” a 1995 public
television documentary. “He was blue and purple and turned all colors. I
started to bite him, but he looked dirty, so I couldn’t bite him. So all I
could do was claw and tear his clothes.”
Mrs. Morgan was arrested and pleaded guilty the next October
to resisting arrest, paying a $100 fine. But she refused to pay a $10 fine for
violating a Virginia law requiring segregated seating in public transportation.
She appealed, and the N.A.A.C.P., seeking a test case over
segregated interstate transport, represented her.
“She was young, attractive, articulate and, judging by her
poised performance in Saluda, strong enough to withstand the pressures of a
high-profile legal battle,” Raymond Arsenault wrote in his book “Freedom
When Virginia’s highest court ruled against Mrs. Morgan, the
N.A.A.C.P. appealed to the Supreme Court. Mr. Marshall and his fellow
N.A.A.C.P. lawyer, William Hastie, argued that segregation aboard interstate
buses — Mrs. Morgan’s bus was traveling from Virginia to Maryland — represented
an unconstitutional burden on the power of Congress to regulate interstate
commerce and that it threatened free movement across state lines.
The N.A.A.C.P. brief in Morgan v. Virginia stated that “we
are just emerging from a war in which all of the people of the United States
were joined in a death struggle against the apostles of racism.”
On June 3, 1946, the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 1 in favor of
Mrs. Morgan. Justice Stanley F. Reed wrote that “seating arrangements for the
different races in interstate motor travel require a single uniform rule to
promote and protect national travel.”
But the Southern states disregarded the ruling. In 1947, an
interracial group led by Bayard Rustin, who helped organize the March on
Washington two decades later, staged bus rides through the Upper South testing
Rustin and two other riders were arrested in North Carolina
and served three weeks on a brutal prison farm. In 1961, Freedom Riders rode
buses through the South to protest segregation and were met with violence in
Alabama that stunned the nation.
Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, who was born and reared in Baltimore,
lived on Long Island and ran a child-care center in Queens with her second
husband, Stanley Kirkaldy. At age 68 she received a bachelor’s degree from St. Johns University, and
five years later she obtained a master’s degree in urban studies at Queens College.
She is survived by her daughter, Brenda Morgan Bacquie of
Hayes, and her son, Sherwood Morgan Jr., of Dover, Del., from her marriage to
Sherwood Morgan Sr., who died in 1948; her sisters Justine Walker, of
Baltimore, and James Ethel Laforest, of Upper Marlboro, Md.; five
grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Stanley Kirkaldy died in November.
In 2000, Gloucester County, where Irene Morgan got on that
bus six decades earlier, and where she lived in her final years, honored her on
its 350th anniversary.
A year later, President Bill Clinton awarded her
the Presidential Citizens Medal. “When Irene Morgan boarded a bus for Baltimore
in the summer of 1944,” the citation read, “she took the first step on a
journey that would change America forever.”
-Richard Goldstein, New York Times