Rosa Parks (Feb 4, 1913 – October 24, 2005)
Today marks the anniversary of a very special day in history. 55 years ago today, first lady of civil rights Rosa Parks refused to abandon her seat on a bus for a white passenger. It was Montgomery, Alabama, 1955. Although this was not the first action of its kind, it would certainly go down in history as the most publicized because it lead to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Parks became an international symbol of the civil rights movement, opposing racial segregation. During The Montgomery Bus Boycott, Parks collaborated with other civil rights activists, including leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Parks helped him rise to National prominence as a civil rights leader, and brought National attention to the whole civil rights movement.
Unfortunately, Parks’ actions did not come without consequences. At the time, she was working as a seamstress for a local department store. After the incident, she was fired, and finding other work was nearly impossible. Eventually, she moved to Detroit where she worked as a receptionist and secretary for U.S. Representative John Coyers. Upon retirement from this position, she wrote an autobiography and continued to live in Detroit. During the final years of her life, she suffered from dementia.
The Spingarn Medal, The Presidential Medal of Freedom, and The Congressional Gold Medal are a few of many honors Parks would eventually receive for her civil rights work. Rosa Parks died on October 4, 2005 in Detroit, Michigan. She was granted the posthumous honor of lying in state at the Capitol Rotunda. Her death was a major headline in most United States leading newspapers.
In New York City on July 16, 1854, Lizzie Jennings waited to board a horse drawn bus to take her to church. In those days, buses that displayed the sign “Colored Persons Allowed,” or at the discretion of the drivers of other buses were the “acceptable” means of travel for black Americans. Back then, drivers carried whips to ward off unwanted passengers. Jennings decided to board a bus without a sign. A local newspaper of the era described the events that followed:
She got upon one of the Company’s cars to ride to church. The conductor undertook to get her off, first alleging the car was full; when that was shown to be false, he pretended the other passengers were displeased at her presence; but [when] she insisted on her rights, he took hold of her by force to expel her. She resisted. The conductor got her down on the platform, jammed her bonnet, soiled her dress and injured her person. Quite a crowd gathered, but she effectually resisted. Finally, after the car had gone on further, with the aid of a policeman they succeeded in removing her.” No charges were filed.
A massive rally followed the next day at Jennings’ church. Unsatisfied, Jennings decided to take the bus company to court. Jennings hired the law firm of Culver, Parker, & Arthur to represent her in a lawsuit against the Third Avenue Railroad Company. The lawyer who argued her case was the future President of The United States Chester A. Arthur.
In 1855, Judge William Rockwell of the Brooklyn Circuit Court ruled in Jennings’ favor, finding: “Colored persons if sober, well behaved and free from disease, had the same rights as others and could neither be excluded by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence.” Jennings was awarded $22.50 in court costs and an additional $225 for damages. The Third Avenue Railway Company issued a directive to all of its drivers the day after the decision, telling them to allow black passengers to ride any car. All streetcars in the city were desegregated within five years of the lawsuit.
Irene Morgan (April 9, 1917 – August 10, 2007), later known as Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, was an important predecessor to Rosa Parks in the successful fight to overturn segregation laws in the United States. Like the more famous Parks, but eleven years earlier, in 1944, the 27-year-old Baltimore-born African-American was arrested and jailed in Virginia for refusing to give up her seat on an interstate Greyhound bus to a white person. The bus driver stopped in Middlesex County, Virginia, and summoned the sheriff, who tried to arrest Morgan. She tore up the arrest warrant, kicked the sheriff in the groin and fought with the deputy who tried to drag her off the bus.
Landmark U.S. Supreme Court case
Irene Morgan appealed her case on the conviction for violating the segregation laws. After exhausting appeals in state courts, she and her lawyers appealed her conviction on constitutional grounds all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1946, the justices agreed to hear the case.
Her case, Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, 328 U.S. 373 (1946), was argued by Thurgood Marshall, the chief counsel of the NAACP and later himself an Associate Supreme Court Justice. William H. Hastie was co-counsel. The action resulted in a landmark ruling in 1946, which struck down state laws requiring segregation in situations involved interstate transportation. Marshall used an innovative strategy to argue the case. Instead of relying upon the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment, Marshall argued successfully that segregation on interstate travel violated the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“If something happens to you which is wrong, the best thing to do is have it corrected in the best way you can,” said Morgan. “The best thing for me to do was to go to the Supreme Court.”
In 1960, in Boynton v. Virginia, the Supreme Court further extended the Morgan ring to bus terminals used in interstate bus service. Nonetheless, many African Americans were ejected or arrested when they tried to integrate such facilities as Southern states refused to obey Morgan v. Virginia.
Morgan’s case inspired the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, during which 16 activists from the Chicago-based Congress of Racial Equality rode on interstate buses through the Upper South to test the enforcement of the Supreme Court’s ruling. The activists divided themselves between Greyhound and Trailways bus lines and usually rode with an interracial pair in the white-area of the bus, with the other activists disguised as disinterested observers in the racial sections that applied to them. The group traveled uneventfully through Virginia, but once they reached North Carolina they encountered violence and arrests. By the end of the Journey, the protesters had conducted over 24 “tests” and endured 12 arrests and dangerous mob violence. Famous civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, in a flagrant violation of the Irene Morgan decision, was sentenced to 22 days on a chain gang in North Carolina for his participation in the Journey. The 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, far ahead of its time in its use of tactics of nonviolent direct action, inspired the highly publicized Freedom Rides of 1961, also organized by CORE.
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. She died on August 10, 2007, in Gloucester County at her daughter’s home. She was 90 years old.
The Keys case originated in an incident that occurred at a bus station in the tiny North Carolina town of Roanoke Rapids shortly after midnight on August 1, 1952, when African American WAC private Sarah Keys was forced by a local bus driver to yield her seat in the front of the vehicle to a white Marine as she traveled homeward on furlough. At the time of the incident, Jim Crow laws entirely governed Southern bus travel, despite a 1946 Supreme Court ruling meant to put an end to the practice. That decision, Morgan v. Virginia (328 US 373 (1946)), had declared state Jim Crow laws inoperative on interstate buses on the basis that the imposition of widely varying statutes on black passengers moving across state lines generated multiple seat changes and thus created the kind of disorder and inconsistency forbidden by the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. Southern carriers managed to dodge the Morgan decision, however, by passing segregation rules of their own, and those rules remained outside the purview of state and federal courts because they pertained to private businesses. In addition, the federal agency charged with regulating the carriers, the Interstate Commerce Commission, had historically interpreted the Interstate Commerce Act’s discrimination ban as permitting separate accommodations for the races so long as they were equal. The ICC’s separate but equal policy, upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States in a 1950 railway dining car segregation case known as Henderson v. United States (399 US 816 (1950)), thus remained the norm in public transportation.
When Sarah Keys departed her WAC post in Fort Dix, New Jersey on the evening of July 31, 1952 for her home in the town of Washington, North Carolina, she boarded an integrated bus and transferred without incident in Washington, D.C. to a Carolina Trailways vehicle, taking the fifth seat from the front in the white section. When the bus pulled into the town of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, however, a new driver took the wheel and demanded that she comply with the carrier’s Jim Crow regulation by moving to the so-called “colored section” in the back of the bus so that a white Marine could occupy her seat. Keys refused to move, whereupon the driver emptied the bus, directed the other passengers to another vehicle, and barred Keys from boarding it. An altercation ensued and Keys was arrested, charged with disorderly conduct, jailed incommunicado overnight, then convicted of the disorderly conduct charge and fined $25. Unwilling to accept the verdict of the North Carolina lower court sustaining the charge, Keys and her father brought the matter to the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) office in Washington, D.C., headed by Howard University Law School professor Frank D. Reeves. Reeves referred the Sarah Keys matter to a former law student named Dovey Johnson Roundtree, whose World War II service in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) he believed would make her an ideal advocate for Sarah Keys. Roundtree herself, as a recruiter for the WAC in the Deep South, had been evicted from a Miami, Florida bus in a 1943 incident that almost exactly paralleled Sarah Keys’ experience. With her law partner and mentor Julius Winfield Robertson, she undertook the case, and the two immediately filed a complaint against both the Northern carrier which had transported Keys to Washington, D.C., and the Southern carrier which had actually perpetrated the alleged wrong, Carolina Trailways.Though Robertson and Roundtree were but a year at the bar in the fall of 1952 when they undertook to represent Sarah Keys, they had been trained at Howard University Law School by such renowned civil rights lawyers as Thurgood Marshall, James Madison Nabrit, Jr., and George E.C. Hayes, and they were deeply involved in the movement to dismantle segregation in the courts.
The match of client Sarah Keys with the young firm of Robertson and Roundtree proved fortuitous, as did the timing of the case, which unfolded during the same two-year period that the Supreme Court of the United States was hearing oral arguments in the landmark school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education. When the US District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the Keys complaint on February 23, 1953 on jurisdictional grounds, Roundtree and Robertson elected to bring their case before the Interstate Commerce Commission, which they believed might be persuaded to re-evaluate its traditional interpretation of the Interstate Commerce Act, in the same way that the Supreme Court was then re-evaluating its interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment. On September 1, 1953, two months before Thurgood Marshall and his legal team made the second round of oral arguments in Brown before the Supreme Court asserting that the Fourteenth Amendment’s “equal protection” clause prohibited segregation, Sarah Keys became the first black petitioner to bring a complaint before the Commission on a Jim Crow bus matter.
When the Supreme Court handed down its epochal ruling on May 17, 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education, the ICC initially chose to ignore it. In a September 30, 1954 ruling, ICC Commissioner Isadore Freidson stated that Brown had no relevance to the conduct of business by a private bus carrier. Citing Plessy v. Ferguson as well as nineteenth-century ICC decisions handed down prior to Plessy, and others which the Supreme Court had later overturned, Freidson argued that the non-discrimination language of the Interstate Commerce Act did not prohibit segregation. Roundtree and Robertson filed exceptions to Freidson’s ruling in which they invoked both the commerce clause of the US Constitution and the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Brown and applied it explicitly to the area of transportation.
On November 7, 1955, in a historic ruling, the Commission condemned ‘separate but equal’ in the field where it had begun—public transportation. In the Keys case, and in the NAACP’s companion train case attacking segregation on railroads and in terminal waiting rooms, NAACP v. St. Louis-Santa Fe Railway Company, the ICC ruled that the Interstate Commerce Act prohibited segregation itself. The Keys decision, made public just one week before Rosa Parks’ defiance of the bus segregation laws of the city of Montgomery, banned segregation itself as an assault upon the personhood of black travelers, and held in part:
“We conclude that the assignment of seats on interstate buses, so designated as to imply the inherent inferiority of a traveler solely because of race or color, must be regarded as subjecting the traveler to unjust discrimination, and undue and unreasonable prejudice and disadvantage…We find that the practice of defendant requiring that Negro interstate passengers occupy space or seats in specified portions of its buses, subjects such passengers to unjust discrimination, and undue and unreasonable prejudice and disadvantage, in violation of Section 216 (d) of the Interstate Commerce Act and is therefore unlawful.”
Hailed by the press as a “symbol of a movement that cannot be held back,” the Keys case marked a turning point in the legal battle against segregation, and a major departure from the ICC’s history in racial matters. In the short term, however, it lay dormant, its intent thwarted by the one ICC commissioner who had dissented from the majority opinion, South Carolina Democrat J. Monroe Johnson. In his position as Chairman of the Commission, Johnson consistently failed to enforce the Keys ruling, and it was not until the summer of 1961, when the violence resulting from the Freedom Riders’ campaign prompted Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to take action, that the impact of the Keys case was felt.
Impelled by the protests of civil rights leaders and the weight of international outrage at the brutality perpetrated on the Freedom Riders Kennedy took the unusual legal step of issuing a petition to the Interstate Commerce Commission on May 29, 1961, in which he called upon them to implement their own rulings. Citing the Keys and NAACP train case, along with the Supreme Court’s 1960 Boynton v. Virginia ruling (364 US 454 (1960)) prohibiting segregation in terminal waiting rooms, restaurants and restrooms, the Attorney General called upon the ICC to issue specific regulations banning Jim Crow in interstate travel, and to take immediate steps to enforce those regulations.
A major breakthrough in the legal battle for civil rights, Keys v. Carolina Coach Company has generally been eclipsed in historical accounts of the movement by the events which followed it, notably the defiance of Montgomery, Alabama’s city bus laws by Rosa Parks and the resultant Montgomery Bus Boycott. Parks’ action assumed an importance far beyond the level of a municipal incident, giving rise to a Supreme Court decision banning segregation in travel within the individual states (Gayle v. Browder, 352 US 903 (1956)) and igniting the civil rights campaign which thrust the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. onto the national stage and paved the way for further reforms. The protest movement King led created an environment in which Keys and other desegregation rulings could be implemented. Keys thus represents one critical piece in the complex and multi-faceted fight for civil rights, in which the legal and the activist streams sustained each other and in combination precipitated the dismantling of Jim Crow.