08/28/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Irene Morgan was 28 and recovering from a miscarriage as she sat in a Greyhound bus to Baltimore in July 1944. Just after she boarded in Gloucester, Va., the driver ordered her to relinquish her seat to a white passenger. Morgan refused. And when a sheriff's deputy, summoned by the driver, grabbed her, "I kicked him," she says, "where it would hurt a man the most."
Eleven years would pass before Rosa Parks's famous civil disobedience on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala., would ignite the civil rights movement and transform her into an American icon. Morgan, by contrast, long remained an obscure historical footnote, even though her brave stand that humid July afternoon led to a major blow against Jim Crow laws. Fined $10, she saw her case taken up by the NAACP and argued by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. On June 3, 1946, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned her conviction, ruling that Virginia could not segregate passengers on interstate buses. "Up until then," says Paul Roth-stein of Georgetown University Law Center, "the court had pretty much approved segregation laws."
After more than a half-century, Morgan—now Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, 84 and a great-grandmother—has at last received recognition. On Aug. 5 she returned to Gloucester, three hours south of Washington, D.C., where her family has lived since the days of slavery. Honored as part of the county's 350th anniversary, Kirkaldy beamed proudly as schoolchildren performed African dances and Rep. Robert Scott (D-Va.) hailed her as "uncommonly courageous."
She never sought the limelight. Kirkaldy married twice, raised two daughters, ran a dry-cleaning business in New York City and earned a B.A. in communications at age 68—followed by a master's in urban studies. Throughout, she never begrudged Rosa Parks her place in history. "I just want," Kirkaldy says, "to be remembered as somebody who did the right thing."