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Morgan is often credited as the first Rosa Parks

By unknown | Aug 31, 2007 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

On a stiflingly hot July day in 1944, a 27-year-old mother of two called Irene Morgan boarded a Greyhound bus in the small US town of Gloucester, Virginia.

Dressed smartly for the journey, Morgan was heading to Baltimore, Maryland, for a check-up after a recent miscarriage. She took a seat in the middle of the bus next to a black woman and her child.

The black passengers sat at the front of the bus, while the white ones sat at the back. A short while later, the bus stopped to pick up a white couple.

By this time, there were no spare seats for white passengers. The driver told Morgan and the woman next to her to move further back.

Feeling unwell and angry at the insult of segregation, Morgan refused to move. She was arrested and had to post bail of about R3600 - hefty for the time.

In some ways Irene Morgan was an unlikely freedom fighter. Born in 1917 to a Seventh Day Adventist family, she learnt the importance of acting modestly, to accept segregation and to work hard.

The importance of the Morgan incident was that the case reached the US Supreme Court and sparked a campaign against segregated interstate travel.

Morgan pleaded guilty to resisting arrest but not guilty to the charge of violating Virginia's segregation law.

Her attorney, a civil rights lawyer from Richmond, did not challenge the principle of segregation on Virginia's buses.

Rather, he argued that segregation on buses from Virginia to other states hindered interstate commerce.

Morgan lost the case, but she won an appeal in 1946. Her appeal lawyer was Thurgood Marshall, a leading civil rights lawyer who later became the first black Supreme Court judge in the US.

In US memory, Morgan is often credited as the first Rosa Parks, whose act of defiance in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 sparked an anti-segregation bus boycott.

But it is not clear whether Parks had heard of Morgan. Rather, Morgan's influence, albeit indirectly, was on the famous Freedom Ride of 1961.

Despite her influence during the 1940s, Morgan did not join the civil rights movement.

After the death of her first husband, she married Stanley Kirkaldy in 1949. She set up a cleaning and childcare business in New York.

After retiring, she fulfilled an ambition to go to college.

Aged 73, she earned her master's degree in urban studies from Queens College in 1990.

In 2001 she received the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second-highest civilian honour in the US.

She died on August 10, aged 90. - The Times News Service, London


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