Civil Rights Pioneer
The name of Rosa Parks is familiar to all of us since she was the Black woman who in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus. Indeed, this gesture not only attracted national attention, but it also became a symbol of protest against racial bus segregation. In fact, it could be called the beginning of the 1960’s Civil Rights movement. Yet Mrs. Parks was not the first in this area. For several years before, Irene Amos Morgan Kirkaldy had also refused to move to a segregated section of a bus, and was arrested for doing so. She proved victorious in the resulting Supreme Court decision 1946, but though bus segregation continued for a few years, her challenge was certainly important in the entire Civil Rights struggle.
Born in April, 1917 in Baltimore, Irene Amos attended local schools as well as the Seventh Adventist Church. During World War II she worked at an aircraft factory, married Sherwood Morgan, Sr., and they had two children. Then came her life changing event.
On July 16, 1944 Irene boarded a Greyhound bus in Virginia and took a seat as she was returning to Baltimore after visiting her mother. At the time racial segregation was standard procedure on intercity buses, meaning that a Black traveler could not sit next to or across from a white passenger. However, there were no designated “Black” or “white” sections and Irene’s seat was next to another Black woman. Then when a white couple boarded the crowded bus, the driver directed Mrs. Morgan and her seatmate, to give up their seats and move to the rear of the bus. However, Irene refused to move and also urged her seatmate to stay put. She later said, “I refused to give up my seat because I had my ticket. I paid my fare and I didn’t feel that it was right for him to tell me that I would have to get up and give up my seat for another person who had just gotten on the bus.”
The driver left the bus to find an officer and when he boarded and learned of the offense he gave Mrs. Morgan an arrest warrant. Then after she tore it up and tossed it out the window, as he tried to pull her from the seat, she fought him. Another officer joined the fracas, and they both removed her, and put her in jail. Her mother arrived to post the $500 bail and Irene was released.
She was charged with resisting arrest as well as violating the state racial segregation law and on October 18, 1944 Irene went to court. She was fined $100 for the resisting arrest charge (which she paid), but refused to plead to the second violation which would have been just $10. Considering the time and location, Mrs. Morgan’s showed great courage since the courthouse was crowded and there was a Ku Klux Klan charter was posted on the courtroom door.
At the time, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), had been looking for a test case dealing with interstate transportation segregation, intending to take it to the Supreme Court. Upon hearing of Mrs. Morgan’s defiance to local law, they decided to assist her on her legal journey. Then when a Virginia court upheld the State law, they were ready to advance to the higher court.
Titled “Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia,” the case was argued by William H. Hastie, former governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands and later an appeals court judge. His co-counsel representing the NAACP was Thurgood Marshall, who several years later argued the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education dealing with segregation in public schools before the national court. He was later appointed to the court in 1961 by President Kennedy.
The culmination of Mrs. Morgan’s case came in 1946 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that Virginia’s enforcement of segregation on interstate buses was unconstitutional. It is interesting that Mrs. Morgan’s legal team had not based their case on the premise of “Equal Protection” as decreed by the 14th Amendment. Instead, they used the tactic of arguing (successfully it turned out) that “Jim Crow” laws were unconstitutional, because they violated the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution.
After the decision was handed down, Mrs. Morgan was interviewed by a Black newspaper. She said, “I’m very glad tension of the case is over…I’m glad mine was a test case to bring the issue into the open. It’s a victory for me and all colored people.” The decision brought national publicity, but unfortunately within a few months, Mrs. Morgan and her case were largely forgotten.
Sadly, hers became just a theoretical victory. For though the Supreme Court extended her case ruling to buses used in interstate bus service, this was largely ignored by bus companies in the South. Also, local officials continued to arrest Blacks who tried to use facilities, limited by law to whites.
In 1948 when Mrs. Morgan was 32, she was widowed with two young children. She remarried a year later to Stanley Kirkaldy who owned a dry cleaning business. Eventually their business also offered child care.
Mrs. Kirkaldy had always wanted to gain more education so when she received a college scholarship from a radio contest she was able to do that. In 1985 at age 68 Mrs. Kirkaldy received her bachelor’s degree in Communications and five years later at age 72 she gained her master’s degree in Urban Studies.
Irene passed away in 2007 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. For the last few years, she lived in the very town where she had boarded the bus, and taken a stand against the inequalities of the time. But by that time, her contribution to the Civil Rights struggle had become well known, and in 2001 she received the Presidential Citizen’s Medal.
Perhaps Irene herself summarized the events of 1946 when she defied the law at the time. “It something happens to you which is wrong,” she said, “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.”
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.