Boynton v. Virginia (1960)


Since its founding in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People waged a legal campaign against racial segregation and discrimination. In the decade after the Second World War, the organization scored a series of victories striking down Jim Crow practices in transportation.  The Supreme Court’s 1946 ruling in Morgan v. Virginia trimmed the reach of segregation laws by holding that the Constitution’s Commerce Clause did not allow state and local governments to mandate segregation on interstate carriers. The NAACP continued its emphasis on interstate travel with challenges to the segregation practices of private train and bus companies.  In Keys v. Carolina Coach Co. (1955) and NAACP v. St. Louis-San Francisco Railway Co. (1955), the Interstate Commerce Commission, a federal agency, held that such policies were invalid under the Interstate Commerce Act, which forbid “unjust discrimination” against interstate passengers.

Despite these important victories, however, African Americans continued to face degrading treatment in Southern transportation facilities such as bus and train stations and the restaurants and restrooms within them, all of which continued to be governed by local Jim Crow statutes and the policies of private concessionaries and operators.

In 1958, Bruce Boynton, a student at Howard University School of Law, purchased a Trailways bus ticket for travel from Washington, D.C. to Montgomery, Alabama.  When the bus stopped for a layover in the Trailways Terminal in Richmond, VA, Boynton entered the station restaurant and sat in a section reserved for white passengers. When asked to move to the “black section,” Boynton refused, citing his rights under the Constitution.  After a manager called the Richmond police, Boynton was removed and subsequently convicted by the local Police Court for trespassing.

Boynton appealed his conviction in Virginia courts, citing his right to be free from racial discrimination in interstate travel by virtue of Interstate Commerce Act and the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of Fourteenth Amendment.  The bus station restaurant, Boynton argued, should be bound by the same non-discrimination standards as the Supreme Court had already applied to interstate travel itself.

After Virginia’s highest court affirmed Boynton’s trespassing conviction, he appealed to the Supreme Court, where he was represented by Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP’s chief litigator and strategist. Marshall’s petition to the court focused on Constitutional arguments—that Boynton’s state conviction for “trespassing” in the all-white section of the restaurant violated the Fourteenth Amendment.  The Court majority, led by Justice Hugo Black, reversed Boynton’s conviction.  It did so not on the Constitutional grounds preferred by Marshall but by extending the logic of earlier cases involving the Interstate Commerce Act.  Just as the Act prohibited interstate transportation companies from discriminating against Black passengers, the Court held that it also forbade segregation by the private operators of terminals, stations, and other facilities “that are an integral part of transportation.”

Civil rights activists were well aware that Boynton and other landmark Supreme Court rulings would do little to change the treatment of Black passengers in the South if the United States did not enforce them.  To force the hand of the federal government, teams of white and Black students activists launched a campaign of direct action, travelling South to integrate bus stations.  When segregationist mobs and local police brutally attacked the “Freedom Riders,” the violent reality of Jim Crow was laid bare.  Faced with outrage from national and international audiences, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission to issue and enforce regulations putting into effect the Supreme Court’s rulings in Boynton and the other transportation cases.

Constitutional Issue Raised in the Case

Did the segregation policies of transportation facility operators, and the local ordinances that sustained them, violate the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Interstate Commerce Act?

Citation and Decision

Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S. 454 (1960) | Full Decision

In a 7-to-2 decision, the Court held that the bus terminal and restaurant must offer services free from discrimination as prohibited by the Interstate Commerce Act.

Discussion Questions

1. The Court held that the Interstate Commerce Act prohibited discrimination by the private operators of transportation facilities. Why do you think the Court avoided the NAACP’s argument that the Fourteenth Amendment (in addition to the Interstate Commerce Act) prohibited segregation policies like the one that resulted in Bruck Boynton’s arrest?

2. Consider the question that the Court avoided: Do you think the discriminatory policy of the restaurant in the Richmond Trailways Terminal violated the Fourteenth Amendment? What about the local laws and police that enforced the discriminatory policies of private businesses? Did these violate the Fourteenth Amendment?

3. The plaintiff Bruce Boynton was a student, as were many of the Freedom Riders. Why do you think students played such an important role in civil rights activism?

4. Boynton and other decisions eliminated segregation in interstate transportation. What about Jim Crow policies in other public accommodations such as hotels and restaurants? How did the Civil Rights Act of 1964 build on the successes of Boynton and the Freedom Riders?