Irene Morgan Kirkaldy

Morgan v. Virginia (1946)

Morgan v. Virginia is an often-overlooked landmark case of the civil rights movement. Decided on June 3, 1946, nearly a decade before Rosa Parks challenged segregated seating on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in this case struck down Virginia's law requiring racial segregation in interstate public transportation. MORE...


On July 16, 1944, twenty-seven-year-old Irene Morgan stepped onto a crowded Greyhound bus in Gloucester County, bound for Baltimore via Washington, D.C. After standing for several miles and sitting on the lap of an accommodating young black female passenger for a handful more, Morgan finally took a seat three rows from the back of the bus, in front of some white passengers. When the bus became crowded as it reached Saluda, Virginia, the bus driver insisted that Morgan yield her seat to a white passenger, as the local and state Jim Crow laws mandated racially segregated seating on public conveyances. After she refused and was forcibly removed from the bus, Morgan was arrested, tried, convicted of violating a state segregation ordinance, and fined ten dollars, which she refused to pay. She appealed, but the state appellate court upheld both the conviction and the fine.

By the following year, lawyers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took on Morgan's case, including Spottswood Robinson, Oliver W. Hill, and Martin A. Martin of Virginia's NAACP, and the national organization's Thurgood Marshall and William H. Hastie. In October 1945 the NAACP asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their argument which contended that statutes requiring segregation on interstate carriers placed an undue burden on interstate commerce and thus violated the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Their position emphasized precedent in the 1878 case of Hall v. De Cuir, in which the Court had voided a Louisiana law prohibiting segregation on steamboats that traveled with passengers on the Mississippi River.

On June 3, 1946, the Supreme Court announced its decision. In a 7 to 1 ruling, the Court reversed the Virginia appellate court and struck down the Virginia law and, by extension, all similar laws in other states mandating Jim Crow practices on interstate conveyances. Justice Stanley Forman Reed, of Kentucky, wrote the majority opinion for the Court. Justice Harold Burton, of Ohio, was the lone dissenter. Justices Wiley Rutledge, Hugo Black, and Felix Frankfurter wrote concurring opinions. Justice Robert Jackson was then presiding over the Nuremberg Trials and thus did not participate.

Reed focused his opinion on two fundamental issues: first, whether the Virginia statute was repugnant to the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause. The second question focused on whether the Tenth Amendment gave a state "the power to require an interstate motor passenger to occupy a seat restricted for the use of his race." Reed then pointed out that it was only necessary to address the first question, since "if the statute unlawfully burdens interstate commerce, the reserved powers of the state will not validate it."

That the statute was repugnant to the Commerce Clause was clear to Reed. Before invoking the precedent set in Hall, he argued: The interferences to interstate commerce which arise from state regulation of racial association on interstate vehicles has long been recognized. Such regulation hampers freedom of choice in selecting accommodations … Seating arrangements for the different races in interstate motor travel require a single, uniform rule to promote and protect national travel. Consequently, we hold the Virginia statute in controversy invalid.

Justice Burton wrote an adamant dissent, asserting that the Court's decision supplanted the role of Congress to establish uniformity in federal transportation if such laws were necessary for interstate commerce. Justices Frankfurter and Black indicated that their sentiments lay with Burton but that they embraced the principle of precedent and so supported the majority decision because of the Hall decision.

Though in Morgan v. Virginia the Court firmly and clearly struck down Virginia's laws mandating segregated seating on interstate conveyances, nearly a year went by before the ramifications of the Morgan decision became evident. In April 1947, sixteen interracial passengers—eight white, eight black, and all members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR)—engaged in a "Journey of Reconciliation" to test adherence to the decision and to help educate people about the Court's decision. The journey was a precursor to the Freedom Rides that would pass through Virginia in May 1961.

Morgan, who later married and was known as Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, was a pioneer of the civil rights movement. She was honored by Gloucester County in 2000 and a year later received the Presidential Citizens Medal from U.S. president Bill Clinton. She died in 2007 at her daughter's home in Gloucester County.

Time Line

  • July 16, 1944 - Irene Morgan is arrested in Saluda, Virginia, for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Greyhound bus bound for Baltimore. She is also charged with resisting arrest after a Middlesex County sheriff and deputy forcibly remove her from the bus.
  • October 18, 1944 - In Middlesex County Circuit Court, Irene Morgan pleads guilty to resisting arrest, but is convicted of violating a Virginia segregation law that prohibits racially mixed seating on public conveyances. She refuses to pay the ten-dollar fine for the conviction and announces her intention to appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court.
  • June 6, 1945 - The Virginia Supreme Court unanimously affirms Irene Morgan's conviction for violating Virginia's segregation ordinance on interstate carriers, and upholds the constitutionality of the Jim Crow laws mandating segregation of passengers regardless of their origin or destination.
  • March 27, 1946 - Led by Oliver W. Hill, Spottswood Robinson, and Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP argues before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Morgan v. Virginia. They contend that statutes requiring segregation on interstate carriers place an undue burden on interstate commerce and thus violate the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
  • June 3, 1946 - Ruling in the case of Morgan v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Virginia's law requiring racial segregation in interstate public conveyances. The ruling says nothing about intrastate passengers, railroad transportation, or how and when desegregation of interstate buses might be implemented.
  • 2000 - During its 350th anniversary celebration, Gloucester County honors Irene Morgan Kirkaldy as a pioneer of the civil rights movement.
  • 2001 - U.S. president Bill Clinton awards the Presidential Citizens Medal to Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, for her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Greyhound bus in Virginia in 1944.
  • August 10, 2007 - Irene Morgan Kirkaldy dies in Gloucester County, Virginia.
Further Reading
Arsenault, Raymond. Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Barnes, Catherine A. Journey from Jim Crow: The Desegregation of Southern Transit. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
Catsam, Derek Charles. Freedom's Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides (Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century). Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008.
Goldstein, Richard. "Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, 90, Rights Pioneer, Dies," New York Times, August 13, 2007.
Lofgren, Charles A. The Plessy Case: A Legal-Historical Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Nieman, Donald G., ed. Black Southerners and the Law, 1865–1900. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.
Palmore, Joseph R. "The Not-So-Strange Career of Interstate Jim Crow: Race, Transportation, and the Dormant Commerce Clause, 1878–1946," Virginia Law Review 83, no. 8 (November 1997): 1810–1817.
You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow! Public Television's Documentary of the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, America's first Freedom Ride. Film produced by Robin Washington for Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 1995, 2007. Distributed by the American Program Service as videotape or DVD.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Catsam, D. C. Morgan v. Virginia (1946). (2013, September 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from

  • MLA Citation:

    Catsam, Derek C. "Morgan v. Virginia (1946)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 27 Sep. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: November 13, 2008 | Last modified: September 27, 2013

Contributed by Derek C. Catsam, professor of history at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin.