This Day in History: One of the women who came before Rosa Parks
On this day in 1944, a black woman refuses to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Greyhound bus in Virginia. No, it wasn’t Rosa Parks! That famous act of civil disobedience was still more than a decade in the future.
Instead, the heroine on this day was a woman whose name you may not know: Irene Morgan. Her action would help lay the groundwork for Parks’s success in December 1955.
Morgan had been visiting family in Virginia, but now she was returning home to her husband and children in Baltimore. The bus was crowded, but she eventually found a seat toward the back.
She might have been sitting near the back of the bus, but she was still sitting in front of a white couple. That was a big “no-no” during the Jim Crow years! She wasn’t really supposed to be doing that. Making matters worse, two new white passengers soon boarded the bus. “You’ll have to get up,” the driver said dismissively to Morgan and her seatmate.
But Morgan’s seatmate was holding a baby. And Morgan herself had been dealing with some health problems. She didn’t want to stand, and she didn’t think that the young mother should have to move, either.
Morgan offered to swap places with the white passengers behind her.
The driver was in no mood for any of this. He contacted the local sheriff, who soon arrived with an arrest warrant for Morgan. She would have to comply or be arrested.
Well, Morgan wasn’t really in the mood for any of this, either! Instead, she tore up the arrest warrant and threw it out a window. The woman next to her was already vacating her seat. “Where are you going with that baby in your arms?” Morgan asked.
But by then, the officer was moving to arrest her.
“When he put his hands on me to arrest me,” Morgan later recounted, “well I was furious with him at the time, and that’s when I kicked him. I started to bite him, but he looked dirty so I couldn’t bite him . . . . He was bowed over, he was really in pain.”
Another deputy ended up taking Morgan in. She was in custody for several hours before her mother got her released on bail.
Morgan pled guilty to resisting arrest and paid the $100 fine, but she refused to pay the $10 fine for violating the segregation law. She was determined to appeal her case. “I’d paid my money,” she later said. “I was sitting where I was supposed to sit. And I wasn’t going to take it.”
She would soon join forces with the NAACP, which was then looking for a way to challenge the segregation laws. Thurgood Marshall was one of the lawyers handling Morgan’s case. He would later go on to become the Supreme Court’s first black Justice.
Morgan’s case would eventually be taken all the way to the Supreme Court! The Justices overturned Virginia’s segregation law, at least as it applied to interstate travel.
The case seemed like a decisive blow to segregation at the time, but it didn’t really work out that way. States still didn’t always comply. For instance, they rejected interstate riders at their borders and made them repurchase in-state tickets to continue their travel. Sometimes black passengers were still afraid to sit where they wanted on a bus.
In other words, Rosa Parks would still be needed. But that is a story for another day.
Christopher M. Richardson & Ralph E. Luker, Historical Dictionary of the Civil Rights Movement (2d ed. 2014)
Morgan v. Virginia, 328 U.S. 373 (1946)
Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2006)
“You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow!” (TV documentary, 1995)