Before Rosa Parks, there was Irene Morgan.
One muggy July morning in 1944, Irene Morgan, a young Seventh-day Adventist woman boarded a bus to Baltimore for a check-up following a miscarriage. About an hour or so out of Gloucester, a white couple boarded. The bus driver ordered Morgan and her seatmate to move. Morgan refused and prevented the woman next to her from giving up her seat, telling her to stay put. The woman was holding a baby. Faced with two passengers who refused to be intimidated the driver headed to the county jail.
A sheriff’s deputy came on board with a warrant for Morgan’s arrest. Morgan ripped the warrant and threw it out of the window, declaring that she hadn’t done anything wrong. The deputy grabbed her by the arm to pull her off the bus. Morgan kicked him in a very bad place because he had dared to touch her. Another deputy boarded the bus and was trying to put his hands on her to drag her off but she clawed at him, ripping his shirt. He threatened to use his nightstick, but that didn’t scare Morgan. She retorted, “We’ll whip each other.”
Morgan was fighting back because like the other passengers, she had paid her money and was sitting where she was supposed to sit. She wasn’t going to take this kind of treatment from anyone. She was dragged off the bus and thrown in jail. Her mother arrived an hour later and posted a hefty $500 bail to get her out of jail.
Morgan went to court where she pleaded guilty to the charge of resisting arrest and was fined $100 but she refused to plead guilty to violating Virginia’s segregation law. Her attorney argued that segregation laws unfairly impeded interstate commerce. He purposely did not make the moral argument that segregation laws were unfair under the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection. His reasoning was that the Supreme Court wasn’t ready to take that argument. The case was significant in that what he and the defence were trying to do was break down segregation. Morgan was found guilty and fined $10.
Her arrest and $10 fine were appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court by a young NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall. Thurgood Marshall was the first African American Supreme Court justice. He was also the main lawyer in the case of Brown vs The Board of Education. His appeal resulted in a landmark 1946 decision striking down Jim Crow segregation in interstate transportation. She inspired the first Freedom Ride in 1947, when 16 civil rights activists rode buses and trains through the South to test the law enunciated in Morgan v. Virginia. However, although the case was front-page news and Greyhound immediately ordered its drivers not to enforce segregation, change did not come overnight.
Morgan never heard the appeals argued on her behalf by the two NAACP lawyers: Marshall and William Hastie, the dean of Howard Law School, which was at the center of the civil rights struggle.
Morgan finally got the recognition that had eluded her for so long although that is not what she was after. Her friends and family say that her whole life was about doing right and good. Over the past five decades, Morgan has led a quiet but extraordinary life. For many years she ran her own business. She won a scholarship in a radio contest. She earned a bachelor’s degree in communications. She was awarded a master’s degree in Urban Studies at the age of 73.
She has continued to inspire her family. In Baltimore, she passed out petitions demanding an end to school segregation without letting anyone know who she was. She wrote to the Pope seeking his intervention in the case of a Haitian whose children had been barred from parochial school. She rescued a neighbourhood boy from a burning building. Every Thanksgiving she invites two homeless residents over for dinner and laundry.
Irene Morgan was a freedom fighter a nation nearly forgot but her story is a testimony of how God chose to use a young mother to shape the history of blacks in America. She was a woman who fought to right a wrong. She was a woman who said no to segregation, which in the South of 1944 was a bold and dangerous thing to do. She had defied the law because it was unjust. She was a woman who was fighting for her religious rights because in Christ there was no distinction between the races. She was fighting for her human rights because she was an upstanding citizen who was paying for a public service like everybody else and who deserved to be treated with dignity.
Like David, Irene Morgan faced her Goliath—the system. And like Moses, she delivered her people from bondage—segregation.
As Irene Morgan faced the ugliness of bigotry, one can almost imagine these words going through her mind, “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You will revive me; You will stretch out Your hand against the wrath of my enemies, And Your right hand will save me” (Psalm 138:7)
Irene Morgan remains a private woman, reserved and modest in an age when neither attribute is valued much. When Howard University wanted to award her an honorary doctorate, she declined, saying, “Oh, no, I didn’t earn it.”
The town where she had got on the bus was to honour her with a day called “A Homecoming for Irene Morgan”. Four scholarships were to be established in her name.
In 2000 Morgan, who by then was in her 80s, was honored by Gloucester County, Virginia during its 350th anniversary celebration. In 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal.
Morgan died on August 10, 2007, in Gloucester County at her daughter’s home. She was 90 years old. Today we celebrate this woman who was an important predecessor to Rosa Parks in the successful fight to overturn segregation laws in the United States (Wikipedia).
“When something’s wrong, it’s wrong. It needs to be corrected.”