JULY 16, 1944
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.”