Bruce Boynton: The Original Freedom Rider

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

On December 20, 1958, 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.  

street view of Richmond, VA showing a Trailways Bus Station on the right side
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.  Without him knowing, Boynton’s order at the restaurant triggered a chain of events that sparked one of the most significant moments of the Civil Rights Movement.

mug shot of Bruce Boynton facing forward and in profile
Photo of one Freedom Rider, Clarence Thomas, Jr. Jackson, Mississippi, 1961. (Courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives and History)

Mr. Boynton was no stranger to the racist infrastructure of the American South and the fight against social injustice for Black Americans. Bruce Boynton was the son of Amelia Boynton, matriarch of the prominent Boynton family who helped orchestrate the voter registration movement in the Black Belt region of Alabama that initiated the Selma Marches in 1965.  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.

In the Sound Recordings of Oral Arguments – Black Series located in RG 267 Records of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1772-2007, the U.S. Supreme Court case Boynton v. Commonwealth of Virginia can be heard being argued by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (NAID 81137863).  In his argument, Marshall stated that since Boynton was an interstate traveler, he was protected from all discriminatory laws under the Interstate Commerce Act. 

Thurgood Marshall sitting with his hands in front of him
Thurgood Marshall, 1967 (NAID 2803441)

 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.

Boynton graduated from Howard University Law School shortly after his arrest in Richmond, but due to the publicity of Boynton’s case, he was denied admittance into the Alabama State Bar for six years.  Boynton would become an attorney and practice law in Chattanooga, Tennessee until he received his law license from the state of Alabama in 1965.  Boynton would spend the rest of his career as a civil rights attorney in Alabama where he also became the first Black special prosecutor in the state.  

Boynton’s fight inspired the Freedom Rides of 1961 that involved civil rights activists organizing bus rides to travel throughout the deep south and challenge the lack of enforcement of the provisions made in the Boynton v. Virginia case.

Records related to Bruce Carver Boynton at the National Archives are located in the collections listed below:

  • Sound Recordings of Oral Arguments – Black Series, 10/1955-12/1972 (NAID 77820785), RG 267
  • Appellate Jurisdiction Case Files, 1792-2017 (NAID 301668), RG 267
  • Engrossed Dockets (NAID 1524561), RG 267
  • Attorney General Speeches, 1/1/1933-12/31/2009 (NAID 7074289), RG 60
  • National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program Records, 2013-2017 (NAID 20812721), RG 79
  • Brian Burke’s Files (NAID 7367488), WJC-DPC
  • Tom Shea’s Files (NAID 117689345), WJC-OCS

Note: A previous version of this post misidentified the mugshot of Clarence Thomas, Jr. as Bruce Boynton. We have updated the caption for accuracy.

5 thoughts on “Bruce Boynton: The Original Freedom Rider

    1. Thanks for pointing that out. We have confirmed that the photo is of Clarence Thomas, Jr. another Freedom Rider. The author searched for images of Boynton that would be housed at archival repositories and located the photo on a CNN write up after Boynton’s passing in November, and tracked it down to the Mississippi Dept of Archives and History. Our apologies to the family for any inconvenience this may have caused.

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