August 25, 2007 by

Irene Kirkaldy

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Categories: Extraordinary People

Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, a quiet icon of the civil rights era whose actions led the Supreme Court to strike down state laws requiring segregation in situations involving interstate transport, died on Aug. 10 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. She was 90.
The Baltimore native was the sixth of nine children who were just two generations free of slavery. She attended some high school classes while earning a living cleaning houses and caring for the children of white people. During World War II, the mother of two worked in a plant that made bombers.
Although she was not a member of any civil rights organization, Kirkaldy did take a stand for equality. More than a decade before Rosa Parks made headlines for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white passenger, Kirkaldy made the same decision.
On July 16, 1944, the 27-year-old black woman paid $5 to ride a Greyhound bus from Gloucester, Va., to Baltimore, Md. When the bus became crowded, the driver ordered her and her seatmate to relinquish their seat to a white couple. Kirkaldy, who had just suffered a miscarriage and was sitting in the section reserved for “colored” people, refused. She also refused to let her fellow passenger, a mother holding a child, relinquish the seat.
The bus driver then drove to the jail in Saluda, Va., and summoned the local sheriff. When a deputy climbed aboard the bus and ordered Kirkaldy to disembark, she tore up the arrest warrant and tossed the remnants out the window. Enraged by her impudence, the officer grabbed Kirkaldy’s arm and tried to drag her off the bus. She fought back and was arrested.
Kirkaldy was eventually charged with resisting arrest and violating Virginia’s segregation law. The mother of two pleaded guilty to the first charge and paid a fine of $100 because she admitted to kicking the deputy “in a very bad place.” Although she pleaded not guilty to the second charge, Kirkaldy was convicted and fined $10. She refused to pay that fine and appealed the conviction. With help from the N.A.A.C.P., Kirkaldy received legal representation from William H. Hastie, who would become the nation’s first African-American federal magistrate and the dean of Howard Law School, and Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Marshall took Morgan v. Virginia all the way to the high court, and argued that segregation on modes of interstate travel violated the “commerce clause” of the U.S. Constitution, which grants Congress the right “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” In June 1946, the Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that the Virginia law requiring the races to be separated on interstate buses was unconstitutional and an invalid interference in interstate commerce.
Although Greyhound immediately ordered its drivers not to enforce segregation laws, many bus companies, mostly in the south, did not change their segregation policies. To test compliance of the Supreme Court decision, an interracial group of 16 civil rights activists embarked on the first Freedom Ride in 1947. Known as the “Journey of Reconciliation,” these bus and train trips resulted in 12 arrests and inspired the song, “You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow!”
After the case ended, Kirkaldy lived a fairly quiet life running a cleaning and child care service in New York. With the winnings from a radio contest, she was able to earn a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in 1985, and a master’s degree in urban studies from Queens College in 1990.
During celebrations of its 350th anniversary, the town of Gloucester, Va., honored Kirkaldy with a day called “A Homecoming for Irene Morgan.” Four scholarships were also established in her name. In 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second highest civilian honor in the United States.

2 Responses to Irene Kirkaldy

  1. Ursula

    I would like to thank Ms. Kirkaldy for her sacrifice and the making of history. Even though she did not receive her just due of recognition, we know that you were in fact the first to take a stand by not being willing to vacate your seat.

  2. joe

    It seems strange that Irene Kirkaldy’s name is absent from most accounts of civil rights progress. I wonder if she was even referenced in “Eyes on the Prize,” the series on PBS that seems to be the bible of the chronology of events. In any event, it seems ironic that this woman, not earmarked by the NAACP for any landmark case, has to take a backseat to Rosa Parks, whose courageous actions are detailed extensively in history books.

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