Sixty-four years ago this July, a well-dressed, sassy and indomitable young black woman named Irene Morgan bought a $5 Greyhound bus ticket from the “Colored” window at Haye’s grocery store in Gloucester, Virginia. She was 27 years old, a mother of two, and on her way to visit a doctor in Baltimore, hoping to address the lingering health effects of a recent miscarriage. With these facts in mind, it’s not hard to imagine her state of mind as she took her seat next to a fellow traveler holding an adorable newborn in the back of that segregated bus.
Behind Barack Obama’s decisive victory in last week’s Virginia primary lay the presence of the late Irene Morgan, who battled bus segregation in Virginia, but never became as famous as Rosa Parks.
It’s also not difficult to understand how she felt when, a few miles later, the bus driver demanded that she and her seatmate get up to make way for a white couple that had just boarded.
Now, Ms. Morgan was, by all accounts, a calm and respectful person. She was a Seventh-day Adventist, and had always been taught to be humble and self-effacing, and to trust in the Lord to take care of the rest. But she had also been raised in righteousness, and that day God obviously told her to take a different path.
In fact, not only did she refuse to budge from the seat she had paid for, but she adamantly insisted that her new friend stay put as well. “Where do you think you’re going with that baby in your arms?” she asked, all but forcing the woman to keep her seat.
And Ms. Morgan was just getting started. After the driver diverted the bus to the Saluda County jail, a sheriff’s deputy climbed on board to remove the recalcitrant passengers and the fireworks really began. As Irene described the scene to The Washington Post in a 2000 interview, the poor bastard never stood a chance:
“He touched me. 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.’”
The legal case that resulted from this fracas eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was successfully argued by a brilliant young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall. That case, Morgan v. Virginia, ultimately overturned all segregation in buses and trains used for interstate transportation, and inspired the first “freedom riders” to risk life and limb as they drove desegregated buses deep into the South.
Well, call us hopeless optimists, but the shameful legacy of that event—and thousands of others like it—feels like it’s been wiped just a little bit cleaner by Barack Obama’s overwhelming Democratic primary win last Tuesday. Not to take anything away from Douglas Wilder, whose history-making 1989 gubernatorial run shattered the glass (or is that white plasterboard?) ceiling for black Americans seeking higher political office, or Jesse Jackson, who won Virginia’s Democratic presidential primary in both ’84 and ’88. But Obama’s win was so decisive, and so broad-based (after all, the man received more total votes than the entire Republican field combined), that we can almost fool ourselves into believing that a new, colorblind era in Virginia politics has finally begun.
So good on ya, Old Dominion. And for all of the dispirited Hillary Clinton fans out there, buck up! With Virginia voters apparently getting more tolerant by the day, it hopefully won’t be long before we smash the presidential gender gap as well. And while, sadly, Irene Morgan won’t be around to see it (she died in August of last year), you can be damn sure that she wouldn’t be the type to mope and fret about coming in second. It’s just like she told the Post when they asked her about being less well known than Rosa Parks: “It never bothered me, not being in front. If there’s a job to be done, you do it and get it over with and go on to the next thing.”
Amen, sister. A-fricken’-men.