MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Bruce Boynton is a civil rights pioneer most people have never heard of.
History books tell the story of his lawyer Thurgood Marshall, the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, and Rosa Parks, who wouldn’t give up her bus seat to a white man. Many even recall Boynton’s mother, Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was savagely beaten while demonstrating for voting rights in 1965 and was honored by then-President Barack Obama 50 years later.
Yet Boynton is largely unknown, a historic figure seemingly forgotten by history. Admirers are trying to change that.
A black man arrested 60 years ago for entering the white part of a racially segregated bus station in Virginia, Boynton started a chain reaction that helped kill Jim Crow laws in the South. Boynton contested his conviction, and his appeal resulted in a Supreme Court decision that helped inspire the landmark “Freedom Rides” of 1961.
For all that and more, he was honored Friday in Montgomery.
“His life is a teaching lesson for all of us about how we can make a difference,” said U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, who helped organize the event. “All he wanted was a cheeseburger, and he changed the course of history.”
Now 80 and in frail health, Boynton is pleased to have accolades coming his way.
“I am very happy that at this stage of my life that there is this type of recognition,” Boynton said during an interview earlier this month at his home in his native Selma.
Boynton was attending law school at Howard University in Washington, D.C., when he boarded a Trailways bus bound for Alabama in 1958. Public facilities including bus stations were separated by race across the South at the time, despite federal laws banning segregation in interstate travel.
The bus pulled into a station in Richmond, Virginia, for a break, and Boynton went inside to eat. Seeing that the part of the restaurant meant for blacks had water on the floor and looked “very unsanitary,” Boynton said he sat down in the “clinically clean” white area. He told the waitress he’d have a cheeseburger and tea, he said.
“She left and came back with the manager. The manager poked his finger in my face and said ‘Nigger, move,'” said Boynton, whose mother and father were both early civil rights activists. “And I knew that I would not move and I refused to, and that was the case.”
Convicted of trespassing, Boynton appealed and his case wound up before the Supreme Court with Marshall, then the nation’s leading civil rights attorney, as his counsel.
In a 7-2 decision with the majority written by Justice Hugo Black, an Alabama native who had once been in the Ku Klux Klan, the court ruled in 1960 that federal discrimination prohibitions barring segregation on interstate buses also applied to bus stations and other facilities linked to interstate travel. The next year, dozens of black and white students set out on buses to travel the South and test whether the law was being followed.
The “Freedom Riders” were arrested or attacked in Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina, and a bus was burned. Then-President John F. Kennedy ordered stricter enforcement of federal anti-discrimination laws.
Boynton’s act of defiance was a catalyst for the entire episode, but he didn’t get much credit, said Thompson, who in 1980 became the second black federal judge to serve in Alabama.
“I think you can clearly say that he pretty much led to the Freedom Rides movement, but he’d never been acknowledged,” said the judge. Now is the time to recognize Boynton, Thompson said.
Boynton paid a price for what he did.
Back home in Alabama following law school, Boynton wasn’t able to get a law license even though he attempted to keep a low profile. “I didn’t try to give any publicity to the case at the very beginning,” he said.
Boynton moved to Tennessee to practice law and finally was admitted to the Alabama bar in 1966. He spent most of his career as a civil rights attorney before retirement.
The ceremony for Boynton was held in Thompson’s courtroom, which previously was used by the late U.S. Circuit Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., who issued some of the most important decisions of the civil rights era.
Boynton will speak about his life, Thompson said, and the talk will be recorded on video for historical archives.
Thompson said he most wants to hear why Boynton refused to leave that whites-only restaurant in 1958.
“He did something that very few people would have the courage to do. He said no,” said Thompson. “To me he’s on a par with Rosa Parks.”