December 5th, 1960

U.S. Supreme Court Rules Racial Segregation in Interstate Bus Terminals Is Unconstitutional

In 1958, Bruce Boynton, an African American student at Howard Law School, was traveling by bus from Washington, DC, to his home in Montgomery, Alabama. While stopped in Richmond, Virginia, Boynton sat in the "white" section of the bus terminal’s lunchroom and refused requests to move to the “colored" section. He was arrested and convicted of trespassing, an offense for which he was ordered to pay a $10 fine.

With the assistance of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP, Boynton challenged his conviction. The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case on October 12, 1960. Boynton contended that, as a passenger of a bus company engaged in commerce across state boundaries, he possessed a federal right to be served without discrimination by the restaurant maintained to accommodate interstate bus customers. The State of Virginia argued that the bus terminal restaurant was not owned or operated by the bus company, and thus was exempt from the Interstate Commerce Act’s directive not to “make, give, or cause any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to any particular person.”

On December 5, 1960, the Supreme Court ruled for Boynton, overturning his conviction and prohibiting discrimination in interstate bus terminal facilities nationwide. Despite this victory and ruling against segregation, the federal government did not actively enforce the Boynton ruling, and many bus terminals continued to operate as before. The Congress of Racial Equality, an interracial civil rights organization founded in Chicago in 1942, decided to draw attention to this continuing problem by staging one of the most important protests of the civil rights era, the “Ride for Freedom” or Freedom Rides.