Before Rosa Parks there was Irene Morgan. Born in Baltimore in 1917, this bold woman helped strike an early blow against segregation. Her defiance of Jim Crow came in 1944, eleven years before the more famous act of civil disobedience by Parks. Kirkaldy, then 27, was recovering from a miscarriage and taking a long bus trip from the doctor’s office back to her home in Baltimore. She sat in the area designated for black passengers but was told by the driver to move further back to make way for a white couple. She refused and told the woman sitting next to her to do the same.
She was firm in her refusal, tearing up an arrest warrant when the sheriff was summoned and actively resisting her removal from the bus. In an interview with the Washington Post in 2000, she recounted,
I can’t see how anybody in the same circumstance could do otherwise,” Mrs. Kirkaldy told Washington Post reporter Carol Morello in 2000. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I’d paid for my seat. I was sitting where I was supposed to… [The sheriff’s deputy] grabbed 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.’
After being dragged off the bus, she was thrown in jail. Mrs. Kirkaldy pleaded guilty to the charge of resisting arrest and was fined $100, but refused to plead guilty to violating Virginia’s segregation law. Her attorney argued that the law violated the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. She was adamant in her appeals, taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
If something happens to you which is wrong, the best thing to do is have it corrected in the best way you can. The best thing for me to do was to go to the Supreme Court.
At this final appeal, she was successful, with a 6-to-1 decision declaring her innocence and striking down the segregation law. One of her attorneys at the final appeal was the wonderful Thurgood Marshall (another personal hero of mine), who went on to join the Court as its first African-American justice.
She said she didn’t mind the relatively little notice her achievements brought. At age 68 she received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University, and five years later she obtained a master’s degree in urban studies at Queens College. “If there’s a job to be done, you do it and get it over with and go on to the next thing,” she told the Washington Post. Feisty in the moment and quiet in her success, this pioneer for civil rights lived out most of her life in New York until her death in 2007. I just wanted to celebrate Irene and hope many others will also fall in love with her.