Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, whose defiance of bus segregation laws -- more than a decade before Rosa Parks’ landmark case -- helped lay the foundation for later civil rights victories, died Friday at her home in Hayes, Va. She was 90.
The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, according to her granddaughter Aleah Bacquie Vaughn.
On a hot July morning in 1944, Kirkaldy, who was then known as Morgan, was riding a crowded Greyhound bus from Hayes to Baltimore when a white couple boarded and the driver demanded her seat. The mother of two, who helped build B-26 bombers at a plant in Baltimore, refused.
She had no overarching agenda to challenge the entrenched racism of the era and no intention of picking a fight. If she had, she would not have taken a seat at the rear of the bus, in accordance with Jim Crow laws.
Morgan refused because she had paid for her seat and she wasn’t feeling well, having recently suffered a miscarriage.
“I can’t see how anybody in the same circumstances could do otherwise,” she told the Washington Post years later. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I’d paid for my seat. I was sitting where I was supposed to.”
Her rebellion led to her arrest and eventually to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided in her favor June 3, 1946, when, in Morgan vs. Virginia, it declared interstate bus segregation unconstitutional.
The Parks case involved intrastate bus travel and attracted far more public attention, in part because of the bus boycotts that followed in its wake and the eloquent advocacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
But “if you know the name Rosa Parks, you need to know the name Irene Morgan,” said Robin Washington, an editor at the Duluth News Tribune who produced an award-winning 1995 documentary about the freedom riders called “You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow!”
“She did everything that Rosa Parks did, with very little knowledge that anyone would come to her aid. Irene Morgan was simply doing what she thought was right,” Washington said.
Her case inspired the first formal “freedom ride” in 1947, when an interracial group led by civil rights leader Bayard Rustin traveled by bus and train from Washington, D.C., to Louisville, Ky., to challenge Southern states to implement the Supreme Court’s decision in the case. Their actions in turn set the mold for the famous rides across the South during the spring and summer of 1961, which helped awaken the nation to racial injustice.
On that July day in 1944 when Morgan rode the bus, all she wanted was to get home to Baltimore to see her husband and her doctor. She had left her children with her mother in Hayes and hoped the doctor would tell her she was well enough to return to work at the plant where she helped assemble B-26 Marauders.
The Greyhound was jammed, leaving her no choice at first but to stand in the aisle. After a short while, Raymond Arsenault wrote in his 2005 book “Freedom Riders,” she “accepted the invitation of a young black woman who graciously offered her a lap to sit on.” About 20 miles later, a seat opened up and Morgan sat down.
The back of the bus was an ever-shifting zone that was reduced depending on the number of white passengers. On this day, Morgan found herself sitting directly in front of a pair of whites, even though she was in the third row from the back. Because she was not sitting next to a white person, she thought she was safe. But then two more whites boarded the bus and the driver turned to Morgan and the woman next to her.
He told both of them to give up their seats. Morgan refused and also tried to stop her seatmate, a young mother, from complying, saying: “Sit down. Where do you think you’re going with that baby in your arms?”
At the next town, Saluda, the driver headed for the jail. A deputy claiming to have a warrant for her arrest ordered Morgan off the bus.
“You don’t even know my name,” she told him, and ripped up the warrant.
According to her granddaughter, she then said she was willing to be arrested but warned the deputy not to touch her.
Unschooled in nonviolence but a firm believer in self-defense, Morgan made the deputy regret his next move.
“When he put his hands on me, I kicked him where men should not be kicked,” she told Newsday in 2000.
He hobbled off the bus, and another deputy weighed in. When he tried to grab her, “I started to bite him,” she recalled, “but he looked so dirty I didn’t want to touch him.”
She was thrown in jail, charged with resisting arrest and violating Virginia’s Jim Crow transit laws.
Her mother paid $500 bail, and three months later, determined to see justice served, Morgan stood before a judge in Middlesex County, Va., to plead her case.
She agreed to pay the $100 fine for resisting arrest but would not concede on the issue of breaking segregation laws.
Her decision to appeal the latter conviction caught the attention of lawyers for the NAACP, led by Thurgood Marshall, who were searching for test cases to challenge the Jim Crow laws.
Marshall and his team, which included Spottswood Robinson and William Hastie, took the case to the Supreme Court using an unusual argument.
They did not argue that segregation was wrong. They argued that it impeded commerce between the states.
The court ruled 6 to 1 in Morgan’s favor, declaring that “seating arrangements for the different races in interstate motor travel require a single, uniform rule to promote and protect national travel.”
Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the black New York congressman from Harlem, called the case “the most important step toward winning the peace at home since the conclusion of the war.”
Morgan was thrilled by the victory, but it was largely ignored by bus companies, which treated the decision “as if it did not exist,” James Peck, one of the organizers of the 1947 freedom ride, wrote.
As the movement moved on to other battles, Morgan returned to her family.
She faded into obscurity but didn’t shrink from carrying out a personal vision of justice. A high school dropout, she worked an extra job to put her sister through college. She helped save a man from a burning house.
She drafted petitions to desegregate Baltimore schools.
For many years, after she had remarried and was living in New York, she sent her husband to the Bowery every year at Thanksgiving with instructions to bring back homeless men to join in the family dinner.
“She introduced them as Uncle So-and-So,” Vaughn said, “and she sent them away with clothes and food.”
Late in life, she returned to school, earning a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University at 68 and a master’s in urban studies from Queens College at 73.
The granddaughter of slaves who had worked as a laundress and a maid, Morgan received overdue recognition in 2000 when she was 83 and the town of Gloucester, where she had boarded the bus in 1944, honored her with a day called “A Homecoming for Irene Morgan.”
The next year, President Clinton called out her name, along with those of Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron and 25 others, to receive the Presidential Citizens Medal.
The citation noted that she “took the first step on a journey that would change America forever.”
She is survived by her daughter, Brenda Morgan Bacquie; son, Sherwood Morgan Jr.; two sisters; five granddaughters; and four great-grandchildren.