Bruce Carver Boynton just wanted a cheeseburger and cup of tea. It was past 10 p.m., one week before Christmas in 1958, and his Trailways bus had stopped in Richmond, Va., for a short break. At the bus station, he saw what he later described as “a clinically clean White restaurant and an absolutely filthy Black cafe.”
Boynton was insulted. A precocious 21-year-old, he had graduated from high school at age 14 and was now a third-year student at Howard University School of Law, the country’s oldest historically Black law school. Traveling from Washington to see his family in Selma, Ala., he sat down in the Whites-only section of the segregated terminal.
“Even though I didn’t expect to be served, I expected something like, ‘It’s not me. It’s the law,’ ” he later told historian Frye Gaillard for the 2004 book “Cradle of Freedom.” “But the White waitress called the manager who put his finger in my face” and told him “Move,” using a racial slur. “That crystallized what I was going to do,” he added. “I did not move.”
Boynton remained defiant even after he was sent to jail, convicted of misdemeanor trespassing and fined $10. He appealed the decision, leading to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that outlawed racial discrimination on buses, trains and other forms of interstate transportation, as well as at the terminals and restaurants that served passengers.
His actions paved the way for the Freedom Rides of 1961, said civil rights historian Raymond Arsenault, setting in motion a bloody and violent chain of events that galvanized media coverage of the civil rights movement, forced the Kennedy administration to take action and spurred interstate bus lines to finally desegregate after years of dragging their feet.
“It all comes together because of Bruce Boynton’s bravery,” said Arsenault, author of the 2006 book “Freedom Riders.”
Boynton, who later worked as a civil rights lawyer in Tennessee and Alabama, died Nov. 23 at age 83, at a hospital in Montgomery, Ala. The cause was cancer, said his daughter Carver Ann Boynton.
Long after refusing to give up his seat at the Richmond bus terminal, Boynton recalled that he had briefly thought of Rosa Parks, the Black seamstress in Montgomery who had refused to relinquish her seat on a city bus in 1955. But while staring down the restaurant manager, his thoughts soon turned to his parents and what they might have done in his place.
His father, S.W. Boynton, had worked to register Southern Black voters beginning in the late 1920s. His mother, Amelia Boynton Robinson – then known as Amelia Boynton – had joined his efforts, and later became a prominent figure in the civil rights movement while running for Congress in Alabama and helping organize the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. Police beat her unconscious on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
“I made the stand I thought my family would expect,” Boynton later said. “I had internalized all this as a part of who I was.”
Boynton appealed his conviction with support from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund while taking an unusually active role in the legal proceedings. By some accounts, he sought to argue the case himself – and take the place of Thurgood Marshall, who had already argued Brown v. Board of Education and was seven years away from becoming the first Black justice of the Supreme Court.
Shortly before Marshall argued on his behalf, in October 1960, “the third-year student appeared at the door of Marshall’s hotel room to tell him how to do it,” leading the other lawyers in the room “to break into laughter the minute he left,” according to a biography of Marshall by journalist Juan Williams.
Marshall went ahead with his arguments, and two months later the court sided with Boynton, ruling 7-2 that segregation at bus terminals and other “integral” transportation facilities violated the Interstate Commerce Act. The decision extended a 1946 ruling, Morgan v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court concluded that segregation on interstate buses was unconstitutional.
That decision was never enforced, and was effectively ignored throughout the South even after the Congress of Racial Equality organized an integrated bus ride known as the Journey of Reconciliation. When the Interstate Commerce Commission banned segregated interstate bus travel in a 1955 ruling, that decision was set aside as well.
In a phone interview, Arsenault recalled that Boynton’s case thrust the issue back into the limelight at a critical moment. John F. Kennedy had just been elected president, giving hope to activists who believed he would make civil rights a focus, and in February 1961 CORE had a new leader, James Farmer, who was “looking for some way to energize his organization.”
On his first day on the job, Farmer found what he was looking for. “In an idle moment, he sees this pile of letters on his desk” from African Americans who noted that buses were still segregated, Arsenault said, and who “thought the Boynton decision should really matter.” With his staff at CORE, Farmer organized the first Freedom Ride in May 1961. Resurrecting the Journey of Reconciliation concept, he enlisted groups of White and Black riders to travel across the South and force the bus lines to integrate.
Anticipating violence, many of the riders prepared farewell letters and wills. They were assaulted in South Carolina and nearly killed in Alabama, where a bus was firebombed in Anniston and riders were beaten by a mob in Birmingham.
But media coverage of the attacks led the Kennedy administration to act. Later in May, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy sent a petition to the Interstate Commerce Commission, asking it to comply with earlier desegregation rulings. About five months later, a commission ruling went into effect that integrated the buses and terminals.
Boynton was by then practicing law in Chattanooga, Tenn., working on a school integration case. He never joined the Freedom Riders but was known by riders such as Henry “Hank” Thomas, who survived the attack in Anniston and later presented Boynton an award on behalf of the riders.
“I decided to follow you and do what you had done,” Thomas told him in 2018, “and it damn near killed me.”
Bruce Carver Boynton was born in Selma, Ala., on June 19, 1937. He was named in part for his godfather, agricultural scientist George Washington Carver, who taught both of Boynton’s parents at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. His parents worked for the U.S. Agriculture Department and opened insurance and real estate offices.
Boynton graduated from Fisk University in Nashville in 1956 and opened a law office in Chattanooga five years later, after receiving his law degree. He had initially planned to work in Selma, but as a result of his trespassing case he was forced to wait six years before the state bar finished investigating his arrest and granted him a license to practice law in Alabama.
His first marriage ended in divorce, and in 1973 he married Alice Cutler. She died in 2001, and in 2008 he married Betty Strong.
In addition to his wife, of Selma, survivors include a daughter from his second marriage, Carver Ann Boynton of Birmingham; a daughter from a relationship with Charlye Frances Nolan, Aimee Emma Meredith of Birmingham; three stepchildren, Jacqueline Simmons of Charlotte, N.C., Mark Simmons of Deatsville, Ala., and Valerie Simmons of Silver Spring, Md.; two sisters; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
While Boynton’s mother was widely lauded for her civil rights work, his own role in the movement went unheralded until recent years. “I am very happy that at this stage of my life that there is this type of recognition,” he told the Associated Press in 2018, when he was honored at a ceremony in Montgomery.
“His life is a teaching lesson for all of us about how we can make a difference,” one of the ceremony’s organizers, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, said at the time. “All he wanted was a cheeseburger, and he changed the course of history.”