On the 1st of December 1955, despite the demand of the driver of the bus she was sat on, Rosa Parks refused to move seats and give hers to a newly arrived white passengers. The act of refusing to leave one’s seat on a public transport had been noted on a few occasions over the years in segregated areas of the Unites States. One of the most notable examples, which led to a United States Supreme Court case, the Morgan v. Virginia case, occurred in 1944.
On July 16th, 1944, Irene Morgan, a factory worker participating in the war effort, was in Virginia visiting her mother. That day, she took an interstate bus back to Baltimore in Maryland. Although there were no designated areas separating black and white passengers, it was known that the back of the bus was the black passengers’ section by default. Irene Morgan sat next to an African American mother and her infant. At some point in the trip, a white couple entered the bus. Due to the lack of space, the bus driver demanded Irene Morgan and the passenger next to her to move at the back of bus and leave their seats to the newly arrived passengers. The mother and her infant moved straight away but Irene Morgan refused. The bus driver went out and found a police officer who presented Irene Morgan with an arrest warrant. Morgan tore apart the paper and threw it away by the window. As the police officer tried to grab her, Morgan kicked him. The first police officer gave up and a second one entered.
“He touched me, that’s when I kicked him in a very bad place. He hobbled off, and another one came on. I was going to bite him, but he looked dirty, so I clawed him instead. I ripped his shirt. We were both pulling at each other. He said he would use his nightstick. I said, ‘We’ll whip each other’
As the second attempt did not work out, the deputy chief was called and arrested Irene who was charged with resisting arrest and violating Jim Crow’s law.
On her court day, later in the year, Irene Morgan accepted to pay the $100 pay for the resisting arrest charge. However, she declined pleading guilty to the segregation violation. As a result, Irene Morgan’s case was taken to the Virginia Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court afterwards, in 1946. With the help of lawyers from the NAACP, Morgan won her case on the basis that Morgan was sat on an interstate transport, regulated not by the state’s law but by the commerce clause of the U.S constitution. While Virginia law enforced racial segregation, the Congress did not.
Therefore, the U.S Supreme Court ruled that the Virginia law enforcing racial segregation on commercial interstate buses was unconstitutional
“If something happens to you which is wrong, the best thing to do is have it corrected in the best way you can. The best thing for me to do was to go to the Supreme Court”
– Irene Morgan
While Irene Morgan’s refusal of giving up her seat on an interstate bus led to a major Supreme Court win for the civil rights movement at the time, Southern states largely ignored the court’s ruling and continued on practicing segregation on interstate transportation. In 1947, 16 activists based in Chicago rode interstate buses from North to South with the objective of testing out the enforcement of the Supreme Court ruling. The journey, called the Journey of Reconciliation, was peaceful up until their arrival to North Carolina where tension rose, and arrests were made. This journey inspired the 1961 Freedom Riders with the same objective of challenging the non-enforcement of the US. Supreme Court ruling regarding segregation laws.
Morgan v. Virginia was not the first case where the U.S Supreme Court intervened on a segregation matter involving interstate transport.
Josephine DeCuir, a non-white woman, was the plaintiff on a case she won at the Louisiana Supreme Court in 1877. Josephine DeCuir was a passenger of a steamboat sailing on the Mississippi River leaving Louisiana. She was denied access to a white-only cabin. She decided to sue, and the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled in favour of her. The Supreme Court based its judgement on a recent Reconstruction era law which forbade segregation in transport. However, the U.S Supreme Court intervened as the steamboat DeCuir was a passenger of, travelled between Louisiana and Mississippi. As declared in Irene v Viriginia case, the Hall v Decuir was also under the jurisdiction of the U.S Supreme Court as they involved interstate commerce.
However, contrary to the Irene Morgan’s case, the U.S Supreme Court ruled against the Louisiana Supreme Court and declared that the state’s anti-segregation law applied on interstate commerce was unconstitutional.
This decision from the U.S Supreme Court laid the basis of segregation in Southern states for the following decades. As a result, the U.S Supreme Court ruling in 1946 was fundamental as it shattered and challenged the legitimacy of segregation laws, the Court itself had upheld decades ago.