Before Rosa Parks, there was Irene Morgan
Irene Morgan Kirkaldy was 90 years old. She had been living with Alzheimer’s disease for more than a year. In August 2007, her family called to tell me she was in hospice care. Then they called back to say she had passed away.
But legends aren’t supposed to die — especially those who, while changing the world, remain ordinary people even if they accomplish extraordinary things.
It was an ordinary day on July 16, 1944, when the 27-year-old mother, then Irene Morgan, boarded a bus in Gloucester, Va., bound for Baltimore. Like any ordinary African-American passenger, she went to the rear, almost as far back as she could go. Equally ordinary for the time, the bus driver asked her to relinquish her seat after a white couple boarded the crowded bus.
That’s when things stopped being ordinary.
“I refused to move,” she told me during the filming of the 1995 public television documentary, “You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow!” She also tried to prevent another young mother from moving. “I snatched her back. I said, ‘Where are you going with that baby in your arms?’” she recalled.
The driver threatened to have her arrested, which she said was fine with her. But unlike Rosa Parks, who 11 years later would receive worldwide fame for making the same protest on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala., Morgan wasn’t nonviolent. When a deputy sheriff arrived, she said, “He put his hand on me to arrest me. So I took my foot and kicked him.”
Only after reviewing the documentary footage for hours in the editing room did it become apparent where she kicked him — a detail she clarified later as being in “a very bad place.”
The rest was history: Her case caught the attention of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People lawyers Thurgood Marshall, William Henry Hastie and Spotswood Robinson. They took her case to the Supreme Court, arguing not that segregation was immoral, but that Jim Crow seating on interstate buses and trains violated the Constitution’s commerce clause as an “undue burden on commerce.” On June 3, 1946, the court agreed, ruling 6-1 that segregation in interstate (but not intrastate) transportation was unconstitutional.
If all this sounds familiar or even repetitive for those who’ve read a few stories under my name, I make no apologies. I’ve related the story in every form of media since producing the documentary. I’ve even borrowed the Morgan decision’s commerce-clause logic to argue the unconstitutionality of North Dakota charging higher fees to Minnesota duck hunters — an undue burden on commerce if there ever was one. Like the story of Rosa Parks, it can’t be told enough if we are to learn from history and appreciate how far we’ve come.
And with that should come the appreciation of Morgan as just an average person who decided enough injustice was enough. Unlike Parks, who was a secretary of her local NAACP chapter and had a support system in place, Morgan could not have had any idea if anyone would back her. Though she received momentary fame at the time of the Supreme Court decision, her name quickly fell into obscurity as Southern politicians and bus companies did everything they could to avoid complying with the law. Only when the civil rights movement came into full force years later would the ruling finally be obeyed.
By the time I stumbled across this history in the early 1990s, the few references there were in articles and books almost always mentioned her in the past tense. That began to change when, after an exhaustive search, a call was returned to my home. My daughter Erin, then 12, answered and an ordinary voice announced, “This is Irene Morgan.” Erin beamed with a look that said, “I know who you are!”
Now, millions of other people do, too. After the documentary’s release came numerous articles, TV and radio stories. The town of Gloucester, Va., kicked off its 350th anniversary celebration by honoring her in an event covered by ABC News and making the front page of the Washington Post. Early the next year, President Clinton honored her with the Presidential Citizens Medal. Fellow recipients included Elizabeth Taylor, Muhammad Ali and Hank Aaron.
Yet brushes with fame changed little about her. Shortly before we met, she had returned to school to earn, at 73, a masters degree in urban studies from New York’s Queens College. She mentioned a fellow student who argued with her about whether Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat was a planned or spontaneous act. As she defended her position (and I can’t recall which side she took), I thought, “Someone actually had the gall to argue with Irene Morgan about Rosa Parks — and she didn’t just pop him one?”
No, that sort of action was only for a deputy sheriff who put his hands on her. To everyone I know who ever met her, she was beautiful, kind, gentle, dignified, yet ever forceful and resolute.
And a legend, even at 90, taken too soon.
This article was originally published in the Duluth News Tribune on Aug. 15, 2007.
(Photo: Virginia Historical Society)