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Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia


Morgan was a significant step on the road to overturning the rule of "separate by equal" that had been the law of the land ever since Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).

Irene Morgan, an African American woman, got on a Greyhound bus in Glouster County, Virginia, bound for Baltimore, Maryland. Morgan was asked to sit at the back of the bus, as the laws of Virginia dictated she must. When she refused, she was arrested, convicted, and fined ten dollars. When the Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed her conviction, Morgan appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Morgan was aided in her challenge to Virginia's "Jim Crow" segregation laws by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had in the 1930s begun a campaign to overturn the "separate but equal" doctrine that permitted such laws to exist. The doctrine originated with Plessy v. Ferguson an infamous 1896 case in which the Supreme Court upheld a Louisiana statute requiring railroads to provide racially segregated rail cars. Over the next six decades it remained the law of the land. "Separate but equal" gained symbolic significance as a multitude of Jim Crow segregation laws were passed, regulating most aspects of public life in the American South.

Like Homer Plessy, Irene Morgan was an African American involved in a test case (Plessy was acting on behalf of the Citizens' Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Act). And like Plessy, Morgan was arrested for refusing to move to the "colored only" section of a public transportation vehicle that was traveling between states. But whereas Plessy and his lawyers had challenged a Jim Crow law on grounds that it violated Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment prohibitions on racial discrimination, Morgan and her NAACP lawyers (one of them the future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall) based their appeal on the Commerce Clause.

The Commerce Clause appears in Article I, section 8 of the Constitution and grants Congress the power to "regulate Commerce . . . among the several States." The commerce power has proven itself a flexible--and powerful--tool. One of its most effective uses has been in combatting institutionalized racism. It was finally codified into law with passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but by that time it had already been used many times by the Supreme Court as grounds for overturning discriminatory statutes.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia - Significance, Court Finds That Mandatory Segregation On Public Motor Carriers Traveling Between States Violates Commerce Clause