JULY 16, 1944

In 2001, then-President Clinton awarded Irene Morgan Kirkaldy the Presidential Citizens Medal. Credit: Photo courtesy of Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.

Irene Morgan, a 27-year-old Black mother of two, was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus for a white couple. When a deputy handed her the warrant for her arrest, Morgan tore up the document and tossed it out the window. Then the deputy grabbed her by the arm. 

“He touched me,” she told the Washington Post. “That’s when I kicked him in a very bad place. He hobbled off, and another one came on. He was trying to put his hands on me to get me off. I was going to bite him, but he was dirty, so I clawed him instead. I ripped his shirt. We were both pulling at each other. He said he’d use his nightstick. I said, ‘We’ll whip each other.’” 

Authorities jailed her. “I was just minding my own business,” she said. “I’d paid my money. I was sitting where I was supposed to sit. And I wasn’t going to take it.” 

Her legal appeal, after her conviction for breaking a Virginia segregation law, resulted in a 7-1 U.S. Supreme Court decision barring segregation in interstate commerce. Her act inspired the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation to test the enforcement of the court’s ruling. While on the journey, the integrated group of bus riders sang, “Get on the bus, sit anyplace, ‘cause Irene Morgan won her case.” 

In 2000, Gloucester County, where she boarded the bus, honored her on its 350th anniversary. Before she died in 2007, President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal, and the NAACP gave her the Oliver W. Hill Freedom Fighter Award. Her headstone reads, “The Nation’s First Freedom Rider.”

More on this day


Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.