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U.S. civil rights pioneer Irene Morgan Kirkaldy remembered for courage

Didn't give up bus seat 11 years before Rosa Parks; won Supreme Court case

U.S. civil rights pioneer Irene Morgan Kirkaldy remembered for courage

Irene Morgan Kirkaldy won a United States Supreme Court case in 1944 banning segregation on interstate transportation. The case helped launch the civil rights era and the long struggle to end segregation laws. She died in Virginia on August 10 at age 90. [photo: courtesy Morgan family]

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Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, a black Seventh-day Adventist woman who won a landmark United States Supreme Court case against segregated seating on interstate buses after refusing to give up her own bus seat in 1944, died August 10. She was 90.

Hundreds of mourners and a choir from three counties gathered for her funeral August 18 at Gloucester High School, in Gloucester, Virginia. The Commonwealth of Virginia was one of many southeastern U.S. states where segregation laws, also known as Jim Crow laws, once required blacks to sit in the back of buses, or stand on a bus crowded with white passengers.

Kirkaldy’s spontaneous act of defiance launched the long struggle of the civil rights era to end segregation laws in the U.S. Her scuffle with law enforcement on a bus, headed across the state line to Maryland, led to her arrest and subsequent high court ruling.

Kirkaldy earned national attention, mostly from black newspapers, and inspired a group of black and white activists, later called Freedom Riders, to ride buses and trains for several weeks in the southeastern U.S., testing the new anti-segregation law.

In 2000, Gloucester County honored Kirkaldy during is 350th anniversary. The next year she received from President Bill Clinton the Presidential Citizen’s Medal—the second highest honor for U.S. civilians.

Kirkaldy, long a footnote of history, was virtually unknown and overshadowed by civil rights icon Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. She had nothing but “words of praise” for “Ms. Parks,” said Kirkaldy’s granddaughter, Janine Bacquie. A humble and generous Kirkaldy was known to have passed out petitions against school segregation in Baltimore without telling people who she was.

Born Irene Amos in Baltimore in 1917, Kirkaldy later had two children with husband Sherwood Morgan. After suffering a miscarriage at age 27, she visited her mother in Gloucester to recuperate. It was early in the five-hour bus ride back home that the driver told her to give up her seat to a white couple. Already sitting in the assigned section for blacks in the back of the bus, she refused to move and told a woman holding a baby next to her not to move either.

At the next stop a sheriff boarded the bus and presented her with an arrest warrant, which she promptly tore up and threw out the window.

“I was willing to be arrested,” she later wrote in an essay that was read at the service. But when the sheriff twisted her arm she kicked him and then struggled with a deputy.

“He touched me,” she told the Washington Post in 2000. “That’s when I kicked him in a very bad place.”

Later, with help from community donations, she paid the $100 fine for resisting arrest but refused to pay the $10 fine for violating segregation law.

After losing in local and state court, her case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The team of lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People included Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first black justice to sit on the nation’s highest court.

The 1946 ruling in Morgan v. the Commonwealth of Virginia banning segregated seating in interstate travel was not always enforced in the southeastern U.S.

“We as a church are appreciative of her remarkable strength in those defining moments in the history of the United States and the world,” said Jan Paulsen, Adventist world church president, in a letter read at the service, one of many from supporters, government officials and civil rights activists.

Kirkaldy’s daughter, Brenda Morgan Bacquie, said some people claim not much has changed since the era of Jim Crow laws. She, however, pointed out that people of African descent are now prominent in local businesses, represent the area in governments, and that the U.S. now has a black presidential contender.

That contender, U.S. Senator Barack Obama, said Kirkaldy “opened the doors of opportunity for people like me,” he wrote in a letter read at the service.

Forced to quit school at age 15 to help support her family, Kirkaldy regretted not having a formal education. Over the years she turned down opportunities to receive an honorary doctorate, arguing that she hadn’t earned it, her daughter Bacquie said at the service.

At age 68, Kirkaldy earned a college degree from St. John’s University in New York, and at age 73 a master’s degree from Queen’s College.

“To all those people who say they’re too old to return to school, I tell them my mother’s story,” Bacquie said.

Kirkaldy’s husband, Sherwood, died in 1948 and she later married Stanley Kirkaldy. They lived in New York where they ran several businesses, including a cleaning service and a child care center. She moved to Gloucester five years ago and her husband preceded her in death by nine months. She died from complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

Kirkaldy is survived by two children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.