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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

Journey of Reconciliation

The case of Irene Morgan was one of those championed by the NAACP. On July 16, 1944, following a miscarriage, the 27-year old Morgan bought a Greyhound ticket to go from Gloucester County, Virginia, to Baltimore, Maryland, for a doctor's appointment. The mother of two sat in the "Colored Section" near the back of the crowded bus, but when a young white couple boarded the bus, the driver asked her and two seatmates to move further back. Her seatmates moved, but she refused to do so.

When the bus reached the town of Saluda, the driver asked a sheriff's deputy to arrest her for violating the State's segregation law. The deputy approached her, but she tore up the summons and threw it out the window. She then kicked and clawed him before finally being subdued.

In court, she pleaded guilty to resisting arrest and paid a $100 fine, but pleaded not guilty to violating the segregation law. She was convicted and fined $10, but refused to pay it. Her attorney argued that the segregation law violated the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution-unlike the violation behind Plessy V. Ferguson which involved a segregated car on an intrastate rail line.

When the argument did not prevail in Virginia's courts, the NAACP took Morgan's $10 fine to the Supreme Court. On June 3, 1946, in Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia , the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in interstate travel was unconstitutional:

As no state law can reach beyond its own border nor bar transportation of passengers across its boundaries, diverse seating requirements for the races in interstate journeys result . . . . It seems clear to us that 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.

African-Americans, especially those returning from the war, rejoiced over the ruling, but any hope they had for a change in the South soon faded. The southern States with laws codifying Jim Crow did not feel compelled by the ruling to change them. Professor Raymond Arsenault cited examples from the summer of 1946:

The most troubling incident was the brutal beating of Isaac Woodard in mid-February [13, 1946]. Brought to national attention by NAACP executive secretary Walter White in July, the Woodard case involved a recently discharged black veteran returning to his North Carolina home from a Georgia military base. [He had served in the Pacific theater of operations as a longshoreman with an Army labor battalion.] Traveling on an interstate Greyhound, Woodard was arrested in Batesburg, South Carolina, after he and the bus driver "exchanged words over some minor point of racial etiquette." [Woodard had argued with the driver about a rest room break.] Dragged from the bus and beaten by Batesburg police chief Linwood Shull and a deputy, the twenty-seven year-old soldier suffered massive injuries, including the blinding of both eyes. Having survived fifteen months fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, he had run afoul of two white men who saw fit to gouge out his eyes with the blunt end of a billy club. Such treatment was egregious enough to prompt an FBI investigation and a federal indictment of Shull in the fall of 1946. But even the sworn testimony of army doctors was not enough to secure a conviction from an all-white Columbia, South Carolina, jury.

A second and equally revealing case involved Wilson Head, a courageous black World War II veteran who undertook his own personal freedom ride from Atlanta to Washington in July 1946. Traveling on the Greyhound line and insisting on his right to sit in the front of the bus, he braved angry drivers, enraged passengers, and menacing police officers-one of whom threatened to shoot him during a brief detention in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Somehow Head managed to make it to Washington without injury or arrest, suggesting that testing compliance with the Morgan decision was possible if not altogether safe. To the dismay of many white Southerners, individual acts of defiance on segregated buses and trains were becoming increasingly common in the postwar years, especially in the Upper South and even among local and intrastate passengers. [Arsenault, Raymond, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice , Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 34]

The Morgan ruling and incidents of this type prompted the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Fellowship of Reconciliation to stage a bus trip to challenge Jim Crow laws. On April 9, 1947, nine African-Americans and nine white men divided into two teams in Washington, D.C., and boarded buses at the Greyhound and Trailways stations for what was termed the Journey of Reconciliation through the upper South (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky). African-Americans sat in the front of the bus, while white passengers sat in the "colored section." The trip ended on April 23:

The Journey's official balance sheet, as reported by CORE, listed twenty-six tests of compliance, twelve arrests, and only one act of violent resistance . . . . [Freedom Riders , p. 51]

One arrest occurred as the Trailways bus left the station in Richmond, Virginia. The driver informed Conrad Lynn, an African-American attorney from New York, that he could not sit in the section reserved for whites. When Lynn explained the significance of the Morgan ruling, the driver said he worked for Trailways, not the Supreme Court, and intended to follow the company's rules on segregation. The confrontation led to a 2-hour delay and Lynn's arrest, as well as grumbling on the bus:

During the two-hour delay, several of the CORE riders conducted a spirited but largely futile campaign to drum up support among the regular passengers. A white navy man in uniform grumbled that Lynn's behavior merited a response from the Ku Klux Klan, and an incredulous black porter . . . challenged Lynn's sanity. "What's the matter with him? He's crazy. Where does he think he is?" the porter demanded, adding, "We know how to deal with him. We ought to drag him off." [Freedom Riders , p. 44]

Lynnwas released on $25 bail and rejoined the ride in Raleigh.

Similar confrontations and arrests would occur throughout the trip, including the arrest of five African-Americans, including their leader, Bayard Rustin. They bought Trailways tickets in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for the trip to Greensboro. Joseph Felmet, a white resident of North Carolina, and Andrew Johnson, an African-American law student, sat together near the front of the bus in the "white" section. When the driver, Ned Leonard, told Johnson he would have to move to the "colored" seats in the rear, they explained they "were traveling together to meet speaking engagements in Greensboro and other points south" and "that they were inter-state passengers . . . 'covered' by the Irene Morgan decision":

Unmoved, Leonard walked to the nearby police station to arrange for their arrest. While he was gone, Rustin and [Igal] Roodenko [a white peace activist from New York] engaged several of the passengers in conversation, creating an "open forum" that revealed that many of the passengers supported Felmet's and Johnson's protest. When Leonard later passed out waiver cards that the bus company used to absolve itself from liability, one woman balked, declaring: "You don't want me to sign one of those. I am a damn Yankee, and I think this is an outrage." Shaking her hand, Roodenko exclaimed: "Well, there are two damn Yankees on the bus!" By this time, Felmet and Johnson had been carted off to the police station, and [white journalist James] Peck had followed them to the station to arrange bail. But Leonard soon discovered that he had two more protesters to deal with. Encouraged by the sympathetic reaction from the regular passengers, Rustin and Roodenko moved to the seat vacated by the arrested riders, which prompted a second round of arrests. [Freedom Riders , p. 45-46]

Bailed out, the riders confronted angry white residents who had heard that "outside agitators" were stirring up trouble. They took refuge in the home of a friendly minister who received a call warning him that if the riders were not out of town by midnight, his house would be burned down. With the help of university students willing to drive them and an escort by reluctant police, the riders made it out of town safely. The wave of intimidation of the minister would continue for a week.

Rustin and Roodenko were tried on May 20 before Judge Henry Whitfield, "a hard-line segregationist [who] made no effort to hide his contempt for the defendants' three NAACP attorneys . . . ." Judge Whitfield sentenced Rustin to court costs, while sentencing Roodenko to 30 days on a road gang:

Explaining the differential treatment, he termed Rustin "a poor misled nigra from the North" who bore less responsibility than white agitators who should know better, and later added a dash of anti-Semitism to his admonition. "I presume you're Jewish, Mr. Rodenky," drawled the judge. "Well, it's about time you Jews from New York learned that you can't come down here bringing your nigras with you to upset the customs of the South.

The two other men arrested in the same incident were tried a month later. Judge Whitfield sentenced Joseph Felmet, a white resident of Asheville, North Carolina, to 6 months on the road gang, while Johnson received a sentence of court costs and a $50 fine. When the prosecutor pointed out that Felmet's sentence exceeded the 30-day limit, Judge Whitfield reduced the sentence, saying, 'I can't keep all these things in my little head."

Higher State courts ruled that all four men should receive the same sentence, but the financially strapped NAACP was unable to take the case to Federal courts, adding that the four bus tickets had been lost, possibly intentionally, so proving the four men were interstate passengers would not be possible. [Freedom Riders , p. 53-55]

Rustin, Felmet, and Roodenko surrendered on March 21, 1949, to serve their sentence at the State prison camp in Roxboro. They served only 22 days, with time off for good behavior, but "their experiences with inhumane conditions and brutal guards" led to Rustin's memoir, Twenty-Two Days on a Chain Gang , that was serialized in newspapers around the country. Rustin described his experience of convict road building:

The camp schedule at Roxboro began with the rising bell at five-thirty. By seven beds had been made, faces washed, breakfast served, and lines formed for leaving the camp for the ten-hour-day's work. We worked from seven until noon, had a half-hour for lunch, resumed work at twelve-thirty, and worked until five-thirty. Then we were counted in and left immediately for supper, without so much as a chance to wash hands and face. From six o'clock we were locked in the dormitory until lights were dimmed at eight-thirty. From then until five-thirty A.M. we were expected to sleep.

Rustin, who had never done physical labor, was ill suited to the regimen of convict labor, but followed the advice of other convicts and worked steadily as hard as he could.

Arriving at the first work site, the walking boss assembled his crew. Waving a newspaper article about Rustin, the boss asked, "You're the one who thinks he's smart. Ain't got no respect. Tries to be uppity. Well, we'll learn you." The work consisted of breaking ground with a pick and shoveling the results. They leveled shoulders, dug or cleaned ditches, and made cement for pipe to be used in draining roads and building bridges.

The work was hard, but Rustin listed the factors that made it even worse:

  1. The work was never done
  2. Thought and creativity in any form were not permitted.
  3. Staying "under the gun" made for crowded, tense conditions.
  4. The men felt like "things" rather than people on the job.

He added:

I believe they most disliked the feeling that no matter how hard they toiled, "the work on the highway ain't never done." When one job was finished there was always another. "Let's ride," the Captain would say, and off we would go . . . . I had never before realized the importance, even to men doing the most monotonous manual labor, of knowing clearly the reasons for doing a job, and the dejection of spirit that subconsciously creeps in when men cannot see a job completed. One day when we dug out patches in the road which another crew would fill in, [one of the other convicts] expressed this feeling: "I reckon these holes will be filled by some fool 'rrested in Durham tonight, and he'll wonder where ... they come from." [Carbado, Devon W., and Weise, Donald, editors, Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin , Cleis Press, Inc., 2003, p. 31-57]

Arsenault summarized the impact of the article:

Laced with dark humor-including an account of Rustin's dealing with a prison guard who kept reminding him, "You ain't in Yankeeland now. We don't like no Yankee ways"-the piece shocked many readers and eventually led to a legislative investigation of conditions in North Carolina's prison camps. [Freedom Riders , p, 55]

In the end, the Journey of Reconciliation was a disappointment, as Arsenault explained:

For the riders, the return to Washington on April 23 brought a sense of relief-and a measure of pride in their perseverance. To their disappointment, however, there was no public event to mark the conclusion of a remarkable collective experience . . . . [The] project's accomplishments drew little attention from the mainstream press in the spring of 1947. Even among white reporters interested in racial matters, the Journey could not compete with the unfolding drama of Jackie Robinson's first weeks in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform. [Freedom Riders , p. 51-52]

The 28-year old Robinson was the first African-American to play major league baseball in the 20th century. His first game with the Dodgers was on April 15, 1947, at Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn. He did not get a hit that day, but by the end of the season, would be designated Rookie of the Year.

Updated: 10/17/2013
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