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Civil rights pioneer finally recognized

By Robin Washington

Boston Herald
August 6, 2000

GLOUCESTER, Va. - It's easy enough to find this small town in an atlas, but don't bother looking in most textbooks. Nor are you likely to find an equally deserving mention of Irene Morgan, though both are inextricably linked. Indeed, if not for the incident that occurred at Hayes Store on July 16, 1944, there would likely be little reason to look for either.

Yet that date and both names live in history as part of the opening chapter in the long obituary of Jim Crow. A decade before the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education and 11 years before Rosa Parks' protest in Montgomery, Ala., Morgan also refused to bow to indignity on a Southern bus.

The differences are more than chronological: While Parks was riding on a city bus, Morgan was on an interstate bus headed to Maryland, where black riders would not be forced to the back. Parks was near middle age. Morgan was 27. Parks was seated near the middle of the bus; Morgan was in the second-to-last row, about as far back as she could go. And while Parks kept a demure composure when a driver demanded she yield her seat to a white passenger, Morgan was anything but quiet when her bus driver fetched a deputy sheriff.

"He put his hand on me to arrest me. So I took my foot and kicked him. He was blue and purple and turning all colors," she told me in a 1994 interview for a public television documentary.

"I started to bite him but he looked so dirty I couldn't bite him. So all I could do was claw him and tear his clothes!" she added in a telling as clear as if it had happened the day before.

She is now Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, and at 83 the stories flow just as trippingly off her tongue in scores of interviews as Gloucester honored her yesterday for her brief visit more than a half century ago that help lay the groundwork of the Civil Rights movement.

That ground began to heave when NAACP lawyers Spottswood Robinson, later a federal appeals court judge, and Thurgood Marshall, later a legal icon and Supreme Court justice, took her case all the way to the Supreme Court. The decision came in 1946, memorialized in a song penned by civil rights activist Bayard Rustin: "On June the third the high court said, when you ride interstate, Jim Crow is dead. You don't have to ride Jim Crow!"

Celebration of the ruling would prove to be premature. Robinson and Marshall had cautiously steered away from arguments along moral grounds, instead using the constitutionally based power of Congress to regulate commerce between the states to make the case that forcing black interstate passengers to ride segregated in some states and integrated in others would be "an undue burden on commerce."

Undue or not, the Southern states refused to enforce the ruling, leading Rustin and a group of 15 others a year later to mount the first organized freedom ride of whites and blacks traveling on buses and trains in a direct challenge to Jim Crow laws. Although their journey was chronicled in the documentary "You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!" - the same program in which Morgan appears - their story and Morgan's have been otherwise virtually lost to history.

Their lessons, however, were carefully studied by the leaders of more famous subsequent civil rights actions.

That may be changing. In preparing for its 350th anniversary celebration, Gloucester has rediscovered its famous short-term visitor. Many more TV crews and newspaper reporters vie for her story. Perhaps those who write textbooks are also beginning to take note.

In her newfound fame, Morgan Kirkaldy is frequently described as "brave" and "a pioneer." Yet those words do little to convey that to stand up as she did when she did more often meant a reward of violence or death than heroism. She herself downplays it all, saying simply: "If I see something wrong, I respond. I was just born that way."

For that, we all must be grateful. Whether we knew her story or not.

Robin Washington, a member of the Herald staff, was producer of the PBS documentary "You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!"