Morgan v. Virginia (1946)


In the summer of 1944, Irene Morgan travelled South from her job at the Glen Martin bomber plant in Baltimore to visit her mother in Gloucester County, Virginia.  On the return trip home, Morgan and another Black woman were directed by the bus driver to give up their seats towards the front of the bus and move to the back row in order to made room for two white passengers who boarded the bus in Saluda, Middlesex County, Virginia.  Morgan refused the driver’s order, whereupon he drove the bus to the county jail. After consulting with the driver, the sheriff boarded the bus and presented Morgan with an arrest warrant for failing to comply with the driver’s orders.  Morgan tore up the warrant and the sheriff dragged her off the bus.  In the struggle she kicked him in the crotch.

Morgan’s encounter demonstrated the complicated legal workings of Jim Crow, which had evolved over the previous half century to evade Constitutional scrutiny.  Courts had invalidated state laws requiring segregation on busses and trains in cases involving routes and passengers that would cross state lines, as these state laws were held to be unconstitutional usurpations of the exclusive authority to regulate interstate travel given to the federal government by the Commerce Clause.  Nevertheless, many states retained segregation laws written to apply to both local and interstate travel.  In addition, transportation companies had adopted their own private segregation policies in line with local “custom” or law.  The Supreme Court had upheld these private company rules, which were understood not to run afoul of the Commerce Clause or constitute the sort of discriminatory state action that violated the Fourteenth Amendment.  In Morgan’s case, the Greyhound bus company policy called upon drivers to seat passengers in a way that would preserve order on board the bus, a rule understood as requiring racial segregation.  This private policy was in line with Virginia’s transportation segregation law, and was also supported by a Virginia statute that gave bus drivers the powers of “special policemen” and made it a misdemeanor offense for a passenger to refuse their orders.

Morgan pleaded guilty to a charge of resisting arrest, but challenged her citation for violating Virginia’s segregation statute.  She was represented at trial and in her appeals by accomplished Richmond attorney Spottswood W. Robinson III, assisted by powerhouse NAACP litigators Thurgood Marshall and William H. Hastie.  All three lawyers had been involved in recent years in successful lawsuits challenging Jim Crow statutes on the grounds they violated the egalitarian premise of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Morgan’s case, however, they built on previous suits involving the Commerce Clause.  Virginia’s segregation statute, they argued, could not apply to interstate travel such as Morgan’s trip from Virginia to Maryland; nor could Virginia law be used to enforce bus company policies that produced segregation.  Virginia courts rejected these arguments, finding that the state laws in question were in line with the bus company’s policies, not contrary to them, and therefore did not burden interstate commerce.

On appeal at the Supreme Court, Robinson, Marshall and Hastie continued to press their Commerce Clause claims.  Their position found favor.  In a seven to one decision, the Court majority struck down Virginia’s segregation statute on the grounds that it burdened interstate commerce by forcing bus companies to adopt different policies in different states depending on state law.

On one hand, the decision was a narrow one, only striking down state laws mandating segregation, while permitting private segregation policies.  In fact, bus companies operating in the South adopted more uniform and explicit racial policies in reaction to the decision, following the Court’s own logic that it was the need of companies to follow a patchwork of state laws that burdened interstate commerce, not the discriminatory content of the policies. On the other hand, success in Morgan v. Virginia inspired activists and the NAACP to bring successful suits against discriminatory private policies, culminating in Boynton v. Virginia (1960), which fully invalidated segregation policies, private and public, in interstate transportation.

Constitutional Issue Raised in the Case

Did a Virginia statute requiring segregation on private busses burden interstate commerce in violation of the Constitution?

Citation and Decision

Morgan v. Virginia, 328 U.S. 373 (1946) | Full decision

In a 7-to-1 decision, the Court ruled that segregating passengers by race violated the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.

Discussion Questions

1. Irene Morgan was travelling from Virginia to Maryland when she was arrested. Would she have been able to successfully appeal her conviction if she had been travelling to another location within Virginia?

2. In 1955, Rosa Parks was famously arrested when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus. Her refusal sparked a boycott to pressure the bus company to change its policies. How was Rosa Parks’ situation different from that of Irene Morgan? What were the similarities?

3. Why do you think Morgan’s attorneys focused on the Commerce Clause instead of on the parts of the Fourteenth Amendment that prohibit unequal treatment of different races? Do you think their argument might have been different if Irene Morgan’s case had occurred after the Court’s 1954 Brown v Board ruling that separate segregated facilities were inherently unequal?