Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, a black woman whose refusal to give up her bus seat to white passengers led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision more than a decade before Rosa Parks gained recognition for doing the same, has died at 90.
Kirkaldy died Friday at her daughter’s home, said Fred Carter, director of Carter Funeral Home in Newport News.
Kirkaldy, born Irene Morgan in Baltimore in 1917, was arrested in 1944 for refusing to give up her seat on a Greyhound bus heading from Gloucester to Baltimore, and for resisting arrest.
Her case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court by an NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first black justice on the high court.
The Supreme Court held in June 1946 that Virginia law requiring the races to be separated on interstate buses — even making passengers change seats during their journey to maintain separation if the number of passengers changed — was an invalid interference in interstate commerce.
'That was a seat I had paid for'
At the time, the case received little attention, and not all bus companies complied with the ruling at first, but it paved the way for civil rights victories to come, including Parks’ famous stand on a local bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955.
Kirkaldy also inspired the first Freedom Ride in 1947, when 16 civil rights activists rode buses and trains through the South to test the Supreme Court decision.
In 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal — the second highest civilian honor in the United States.
Asked where her courage came from that day, Kirkaldy said simply: “I can’t understand how anyone would have done otherwise.”
She was not part of any organized movement, unlike Parks, who was an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People when she challenged segregation.
Kirkaldy, then a young mother, boarded the Greyhound bus in Hayes Store, Va., and took a seat toward the back for her ride home. She was recovering from surgery and had taken her two children to stay temporarily with her mother in Gloucester.
A few miles down the road, the driver told her to move because a white couple wanted to occupy her row.
“I said ’Well, no,”’ she recalled. “That was a seat I had paid for.”
'She doesn't see herself as a hero'
Kirkaldy said she willingly paid a $100 fine for resisting arrest because she did kick the officer who tried to remove her from the bus.
“Sometimes, you are so enraged, you don’t have time to be afraid,” she remarked in 2000.
She lived out of the spotlight for decades after the case, earning a college degree in 1985 at age 68, and lived most of her life in New York state.
She said she didn’t mind the relatively little notice her achievements brought.
“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 in 2000.
Her daughter, Brenda Bacquie, told the newspaper: “She always taught us that if you know you’re right, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. It’s a moral thing. ... She doesn’t see herself as a hero.”