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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

Boynton v. Virginia (1960)

Another incident in the struggle to implement the Morgan ruling occurred in 1958 when Bruce Boynton, an African-American student at historically black Howard University's Law School in Washington, boarded a Trailways bus for a trip to his home in Montgomery, Alabama. On a stop in Richmond, Boynton sat in the white section of the lunchroom and refused to move to the "colored section." He was arrested for trespass and fined $10.

The NAACP took up Boynton's case, which reached the Supreme Court in 1960. The State had conceded that the arrest was invalid if Federal law or the Constitution gave Boynton the right to service, but did not believe either was the case. Arguing for Boynton, Thurgood Marshall explained that the arrest placed an unreasonable burden on commerce and denied Boynton equal protection of the law. The Justice Department raised a different issue in a friend-of-the-court brief. It said that the Interstate Commerce Act forbade "unjust discrimination." The provision read:

It shall be unlawful for any common carrier by motor vehicle engaged in interstate or foreign commerce to make, give, or cause any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to any particular person . . . in any respect whatsoever; or to subject any particular person . . . to any unjust discrimination or any unjust or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage in any respect whatsoever . . . . [Section 216(d) of Part II of the Interstate Commerce Act, 49 U.S.C. 316(d)]

Trailways, which had built the Richmond terminal in 1953, was subject to the law, but the company hired a contractor to operate the dining area. The State responded that unlike Trailways, its contractor was not subject to the act.

The Supreme Court ruled on Boynton v. Virginia on December 5, 1960, that interstate passengers were protected by the Interstate Commerce Act. The 7-2 ruling, written by Justice Hugo L. Black, turned on the status of the contractor operating the dining area:

We are not holding that every time a bus stops at a wholly independent roadside restaurant the act applies . . . [but] where circumstances show that the terminal and restaurant operate as an integral part of the bus carrier's transportation service . . . an interstate passenger need not inquire into documents of title or contractual agreements in order to determine whether he has a right to be served without discrimination.

Therefore, Boynton had a right to remain in the white section of the dining area.

The ruling extended the Supreme Court's ruling in Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia beyond interstate buses and trains, but again the southern States did not enforce it and the Federal Government did not throw its weight behind the decision. Enforcement would have to be by the action of individuals and defense of their actions by the NAACP and other civil rights organizations.

Boynton inspired CORE to adapt the Journey of Reconciliation for a new campaign of integration through the South. This was not the first time CORE had considered reviving the campaign. Billie Ames, a St. Louis woman who served as CORE's national group coordinator, had proposed a "Ride for Freedom" in 1954 to challenge segregated railway coaches and terminals. Family obligations, however, forced her to abandon the plan. [Freedom Riders, p. 57] In the wake of the Boynton ruling, however, CORE revived the idea.

Arsenault explained that the revival came about because CORE members had written to ask why neither Morgan nor Boynton was being enforced. The new director of CORE, James Farmer, asked his staff how to answer the questions he was receiving:

To his surprise, two staff members had already come up with a tentative plan to address the problem of nonenforcement. As Gordon Carey explained, during an unexpectedly long bus trip from South Carolina to New York in mid-January, he and Tom Gaither had discussed the feasibility of a second Journey of Reconciliation. Adapting the phrase "Ride for Freedom" originated by Billie Ames in the mid-1950s, they had come up with a catchy name for the project: "Freedom Ride." Thanks to a blizzard that forced them to spend a night on the floor of a Howard Johnson's restaurant along the New Jersey Turnpike, they had even gone so far as to map out a proposed route from Washington to New Orleans. Patterned after Gandhi's famous march to the sea-throughout the bus trip Carey had been reading Louis Fisher's biography of Gandhi-the second Journey, like the first, would be two weeks. But, taking advantage of the Southern movement's gathering momentum, it would also extend the effort to test compliance with the Constitution into the heart of the Deep South. [Freedom Riders, p. 93-94]

The Freedom Ride would follow the pattern of the Journey of Reconciliation. Half of the riders would go by Greyhound, while the other half would travel on Trailways. Unlike the earlier ride, the plan would go through the Deep South. They would leave Washington on May 17 and travel through Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi on their way to New Orleans.

In view of the potential danger, CORE asked Gaither to travel the route in advance to survey the terminal facilities, talk with local leaders of the African-American communities, arrange housing and speaking engagements for the riders, and assess the prospects for violence. Although the reaction of African-Americans was mixed, Gaither was encouraged by their overall response. His assessment of the white reaction was another matter:

In the Upper South states of Virginia and North Carolina, the prospects for compliance with Morgan and Boynton looked promising, but from South Carolina on down Gaither didn't like what he saw. He already had firsthand experience with the harshness of segregationist resistance in Rock Hill and other South Carolina communities, but the belligerence and defiance that he encountered in Alabama and Mississippi shocked him. If the Freedom Riders challenged the ultra-segregationists of the Deep South without benefit of police protection, he concluded, they would be lucky to escape with their lives. [Freedom Riders , p. 96-97]

Updated: 10/17/2013
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000