The second-floor courtroom of Saluda’s historic courthouse was filled to capacity on Saturday morning, as people came from far and wide to pay tribute to Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, both for the private woman herself and the very public stand she took that forever altered Jim Crow segregation and paved the way for the civil rights victories of the 1950s and ’60s.
The courtroom itself played a big part in the story that was told during the 2½-hour ceremony. In this room that contains plaques and portraits commemorating Middlesex County’s Confederate soldiers, history of a different kind played out some 68 years ago.
It was on this spot in 1944 that a 27-year-old Irene Morgan was found guilty of refusing to give up her seat on a Greyhound bus to a white passenger. With the help of the NAACP, the case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, with that body ruling that segregation on interstate transportation was unconstitutional.
Saturday’s ceremony was held to unveil a new state highway marker commemorating the landmark case, and the event attracted a number of dignitaries including Benjamin Jealous, national president and CEO of the NAACP, and Kwame Lillard, president of the African American Cultural Alliance, as well as several other men and women who, like Lillard, traveled on buses throughout the South in 1961 to challenge the southern states’ segregation laws. These Freedom Riders trace their origins and inspiration to Irene Morgan and they were on hand as a show of respect for her courage.