This article first appeared in the Washington Post on August 13, 2007. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, 90, who died of Alzheimer's disease August 10 at her home in Gloucester, Virginia, quietly changed history in 1944 when she refused to give up her seat on a crowded Greyhound bus to a white couple. Her case resulted in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in interstate transportation and sparked the first Freedom Ride in 1947.
Mrs. Kirkaldy's defiance of the discriminatory Jim Crow laws of Virginia came 11 years before Rosa Parks's similar act in Montgomery, Alabama, galvanized the civil rights movement and made her a national icon. Without fanfare, Mrs. Kirkaldy's early case provided a winning strategy for fighting racial segregation in the courts.
On the July morning in 1944 when she boarded a Greyhound bus in Gloucester bound for Baltimore, Mrs. Kirkaldy was not thinking about tackling racial segregation. Instead, the 27-year-old mother of two, who was recovering from a miscarriage, just wanted a comfortable seat for her lengthy ride home to see a doctor.
She settled into an aisle seat in the fourth row from the back -- in the section designated under Virginia's segregation laws for black passengers. Beside her sat a young mother cuddling an infant.
About a half-hour into the trip, the bus stopped, and a white couple boarded. When the driver ordered Mrs. Kirkaldy, then known as Irene Morgan, and her seatmate to give up their seats, Mrs. Kirkaldy refused. She also told the young woman to stay put.
"I can't see how anybody in the same circumstance could do otherwise," Mrs. Kirkaldy told Washington Post reporter Carol Morello in 2000. "I didn't do anything wrong. I'd paid for my seat. I was sitting where I was supposed to."
The Greyhound bus driver, however, thought otherwise. He drove to the jail in Saluda, Virginia, in Middlesex County, where a sheriff's deputy boarded the bus and gave Mrs. Kirkaldy a warrant for her arrest.
In a daring and dangerous move, she tore up the warrant and threw it out the window. The deputy then grabbed her arm and tried to yank her off the bus. She didn't go peacefully.
"He touched me," she recounted to The Post. "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.' "
After being dragged off the bus, she was thrown in jail. Mrs. Kirkaldy pleaded guilty to the charge of resisting arrest and was fined $100 but refused to plead guilty to violating Virginia's segregation law.
At her trial in Middlesex Circuit Court, her attorney, Spottswood Robinson III, argued that segregation laws unfairly impeded interstate commerce. Robinson, who later became chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District, made a strategic decision not to argue that the laws were unfair under the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection, because racial segregation, while unjust, was the law of the land.
The strategy failed the first time around. Mrs. Kirkaldy was found guilty and fined $10.
Success came, however, when two young NAACP lawyers, Thurgood Marshall and William H. Hastie, appealed her conviction of violating segregation laws all the way to the Supreme Court. (Marshall became the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court; Hastie, the first African American judge on a federal appeals court.)
On June 3, 1946, in Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in interstate travel was unconstitutional as "an undue burden on commerce."
In a 6 to 1 ruling, the court stated in part, "It seems clear to us that seating arrangements for the different races in interstate motor travel require a single, uniform rule to promote and protect national travel. Consequently, we hold the Virginia statute in controversy invalid."
Southern states refused to enforce the decision. In 1947, a group of black and white activists with the newly formed Congress of Racial Equality decided to test the Morgan decision on a two-week "Journey of Reconciliation" through four Southern states.
Traveling on buses and trains, the activists sang the song, "You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow," which paid tribute to Mrs. Kirkaldy:
Get on the bus, sit anyplace,
'Cause Irene Morgan won her case.
Mrs. Kirkaldy was born April 9, 1917, in Baltimore, the sixth of nine children in a Seventh-day Adventist family. Growing up, she cleaned houses, washed clothes and cared for the children of white families. She married Sherman Morgan and had two children. At the time of the bus incident in 1944, she had gone to Gloucester to leave her children with her mother. Her husband died in 1948.
She later married Stanley Kirkaldy, a dry cleaner, and moved to Queens, NewYork, where together they ran a maid service and child-care business. A radio contest netted her a scholarship to St. John's University and a bachelor's degree in 1985. In 1990, at age 73, she received a master's degree in urban studies from Queens College.
Mrs. Kirkaldy, a humble woman who valued education and had a strong sense of justice, was never interested in fame, said a granddaughter, Janine Bacquie. However, recent recognition of her place in history did bring her "a measure of joy."
In 2000, Mrs. Kirkaldy was honored by Gloucester County during its 350th anniversary celebration, and in 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal.
She moved from Long Island, New York, to Gloucester about five years ago. Her husband died in 2006.
Survivors include two children from her first marriage, Brenda Morgan Bacquie of Gloucester and Sherwood Morgan Jr. of Dover, Delaware; two sisters, James Ethel Laforest of Upper Marlboro, Maryland; and Justine Walker of Baltimore; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.