The People v. Jim Crow: Federal Cases that Inspired the Freedom Rides of 1961

Today’s post was written by Billy R. Glasco, Jr., archivist at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.

In 1961, the Freedom Riders purposely challenged a system that ignored a series of civil rights cases, ruling segregation of interstate commerce unconstitutional.  The legal battles that inspired the Freedom Rides were fought by a World War II defense contractor, an Army officer, and a law student who, at their pivotal moments in history, were just exhausted with the laws of the Jim Crow South.  Little did they know that their astute defiance would ignite one of the most memorable events of the Civil Rights Movement.

headline in bold red letters with portrait of Irene Morgan
Washington Afro American, July 14, 1944 “JC Bus Travel Outlawed” ((c)

On the morning of July 16, 1944, Irene Morgan, a 27 year old production line worker who made B-26 Marauder airplanes was returning home to Baltimore, Maryland from a doctor’s appointment in Gloucester, Virginia.

When Morgan boarded a Greyhound bus in Gloucester, she sat on the fourth aisle from the back, a seat designated under Virginia’s segregation law to be for Black passengers.  When the Greyhound stopped in Saluda, VA, white passengers boarded an already crowded bus.  When the bus driver ordered Morgan to give up her seat for the onboarding white passengers, she refused.  In a 2000 Washington Post interview by Carol Morello, Morgan stated, “I didn’t do anything wrong. I’d paid for my seat. I was sitting where I was supposed to.”

After defying the bus driver’s order, the bus driver drove the Greyhound carrying Morgan to the Middlesex, VA county jail, where the driver filed a complaint against Morgan for not giving up her seat for onboarding white passengers.  After the bus driver filed the complaint, a sheriff’s deputy boarded the bus and issued Morgan a warrant for her arrest. 

Agitated, Morgan tore the warrant into pieces and threw it out the bus window.  The deputy then attempted to grab Morgan by the arm to forcibly take her off the bus.  After grabbing her arm, Morgan stated:

“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.’ “

Morgan would be arrested and jailed.  At her court appearance in the Middlesex Circuit Court, Morgan pleaded guilty to resisting arrest and was fined $100.  However, she refused to plead guilty to violating Virginia’s segregation law.  Morgan was found guilty of violating Virginia’s segregation law and fined $10.

With the help of her lawyer Spottswood Robinson III and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Morgan appealed her case to the Virginia Supreme Court where she was ruled in violation of the law.

In October 1945, Morgan appealed her case to the United States Supreme Court.  On March 27, 1946, in the U.S. Supreme Court case, Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia 328 U.S. 373, located in the series Appellate Jurisdiction Case Files, 1792-2017 (NAID 301668) of RG 267 Records of the Supreme Court of the United States, NAACP Attorneys William H. Hastie and Thurgood Marshall strategically did not use the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment as the base of their argument.  Hastie and Marshall however argued that segregation on interstate travel violated the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution.

black & white portrait
Portrait of Judge William H. Hastie, ca. 1965 (Harry S. Truman Presidential Library)

On June 3, 1946 in a 7-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for Virginia to continue the enforcement of segregation on interstate buses.  Although the ruling of Morgan’s case was in her favor, the state of Virginia ignored the Supreme Court’s decision and continued to practice segregation and enforce the laws of Jim Crow.

Excerpt from presentation of the Presidential Citizens Award (NAID 6850713)

Virginia’s blatant disregard for the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Morgan’s case inspired sixteen men, including Bayard Rustin and James Peck from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to organize a direct action of nonviolence to challenge segregation laws of interstate bus travel throughout the South.  This arduous two week effort began April 9, 1947 in Washington D.C. and would travel through North Carolina and Virginia.  This act of protest would become known at The Journey of Reconciliation or “The First Freedom Ride”.

Six years after the Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia decision, on the night of August 1, 1952, Women’s Auxiliary Corps Private Sarah Keys arrived on a bus at the Roanoke Rapids Trailways terminal in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina from Fort Nix, New Jersey.  Keys was seated at the fifth seat from the front aisle in the white section of the bus.  Although Keys had no alterations due to where she was seated from the beginning of her trip in New Jersey, the new driver who took over the bus Keys traveled on in Roanoke Rapids demanded that she surrender her seat so a white Marine officer could sit down.   

3/4 portrait in uniform w/cap
Private First Class Sarah Keys (US Army)

Keys refused to give up her seat.  After not adhering to the driver’s demand, the driver redirected passengers to another bus while prohibiting Keys from boarding it.  An argument ensued between Keys and the bus driver, and Keys was later arrested for disorderly conduct.  Keys would stay overnight at the Roanoke Rapids City jail without being able to communicate with anyone on her behalf.  She would be found guilty of disorderly conduct and fined $25.

illustrated bus terminal building
Postcard of Roanoke Rapids Bus Terminal, NC (State Archives of North Carolina)

Keys did not give up her fight.  Along with her father, Keys sought counsel from the NAACP’s Washington, D.C. office.  Frank D. Reeves, president of the NAACP Washington D.C. office accepted the task of fighting Keys’ case, and referred her case to civil rights activist Dovey Johnson Roundtree.  Roundtree, who also served in the Women’s Auxiliary Corps, also experienced similar discrimination in the Jim Crow South during her tenure as a WAC recruitment officer.  Roundtree along with her partner, Julius Winfield Robertson embarked on a three year legal campaign in the federal court system to challenge the “separate but equal” doctrine from the Plessy v. Ferguson case, which was used as a legal mechanism to disenfranchise African Americans in the South. 

Johnson and Mary McLeod Bethune seated at a table
Mary McLeod Bethune at a luncheon at the First WAC Training Center, Fort Des Moines, Iowa, with Captain Dovey M. Johnson on the right, 1943-45 (Library of Congress)

Keys’ legal team first filed a complaint against the transit systems that transported Keys from New Jersey to North Carolina in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 1953, but the case was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.  After Keys’ case was dismissed, Roundtree and Robertson shifted their focus to Keys rights being violated as an interstate traveler and took their case to the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC).

In 1954, the case Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Co., located in the series Class 59 (Railroads, Transportation, Interstate Commerce Commission Acts) Litigation Case Files and Enclosures, 1912-1984 (NAID 1165210) of Record Group 60: General Records of the Department of Justice, was rejected by the Interstate Commerce Commission, but a legal breakthrough in a Supreme Court case was about to turn the tide for Sarah Keys’ legal saga.

In the same year, a unanimous decision was made by the Supreme Court in favor of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.  The ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (NAID 596300) deemed it unconstitutional for public schools to be segregated.  The ruling prompted Roundtree and Robertson to bring Keys’ case to the ICC again, but this time argue that the ruling made in the Brown decision should also apply to interstate travel.

On November 7, 1955, almost four weeks before the day Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, the Interstate Commerce Commission ruled in favor of Keys in Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, stating that segregation in regards to interstate transportation was unconstitutional.  For the first time in legal history, Key’s case closed the loophole private bus companies used to impose Jim Crow laws in the operation of public transportation.

Three years after the Keys v. Carolina Coach Co. ruling, Bruce Carver Boynton, a black law student at Howard University was on his way home to Selma, Alabama via Trailways bus line for the Christmas Holidays.  On his way home, Boynton bus stopped in Richmond, Virginia for a forty-minute layover.  

view down a street with bus terminal on right
Trailways Bus Terminal in Richmond, VA, 1960 (Courtesy of The Library of Virginia)

While waiting for his bus to leave the terminal in Richmond, Boynton went to a nearby restaurant labeled “whites only” to get something to eat.  At the restaurant he ordered a cheeseburger and a glass of tea.  

Mr. Boynton was no stranger to the injustice of the Jim Crow South.  So when Boynton refused to leave the “whites only” restaurant when asked by the restaurant’s assistant manager and police, he was angry, yet unwavering when arrested for misdemeanor trespassing.  Boynton spent one night in jail and was fined ten dollars in a Richmond Police Court.

Afterwards, Boynton would appeal his conviction to the Hustings Court in Richmond, filing a motion that his arrest at the Trailways terminal was a violation of his civil rights.  The Hustings Court dismissed Boynton’s motion that was also upheld by the Supreme Court of Virginia.

Boynton’s knowledge of the American legal system and determination to rectify the disservice he was given in Richmond led him to appeal his case to the U.S. Supreme court.

half length portrait
Photograph of Thurgood Marshall (NAID 2803441)

One can hear NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall arguing the Supreme Court case Boynton v. Commonwealth of Virginia (NAID 81137863) in the series Sound Recordings of Oral Arguments – Black Series.  In his argument, Marshall stated that since Boynton was an interstate traveler, he was protected from all discriminatory laws under the Interstate Commerce Act. 

 On December 5, 1960, in a decision of 7-2, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Boynton stating that the Interstate Commerce Act not only prohibits racial discrimination during travel, but also in travel terminal waiting rooms and restaurants.

On May 4, 1961, 13 members of CORE boarded Greyhound and Trailways buses at a bus terminal in Washington, D.C.  Their goal was to travel throughout the South and challenge the negligence Jim Crow imposed on thousands of African Americans like Irene Morgan (who would receive the Citizens Medal from President Clinton in 2001), Sarah Keys, and Bruce Boynton.  American citizens who simply wanted to safely travel home on a bus after leaving a doctor’s appointment, a military base, and school for the Christmas holidays.  On the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, commemoration is given to the Americans who sacrificed their time and lives for some of the rights we at times still fight to enjoy today.

Further Reading:

One thought on “The People v. Jim Crow: Federal Cases that Inspired the Freedom Rides of 1961

  1. I had heard stories from returning WW II veterans about similar experiences with public transportation and facilities but never enough to see the momentum building to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. Thank you for making the connections with some great images.

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