Friday, 1 January 2021


My obituary of Bruce Boynton, whose protest of "separate but equal" dining facilities at a Virginia bus station led to a Supreme Court ruling against that apartheid concept, and sparked both lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Riders on buses across the South, appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 21 December. I happened to miss it then, and as it is behind a paywall, I will simply post my original copy here: it was written to a tight word limit and I hope therefore wasn't cut very much.

Had I more space I would have written a bit more about his own practice, especially in Washington, and about the conflicts which are hinted at in accounts of his work in Alabama, particularly in what he felt was a lack of support from the Civil Rights movement and the black community when he broke racial barriers in public service.

I would have also written more about his mother, who outlived three husbands and was an activist all her life. You can find that picture of her in her wheelchair holding hands with President Obama on the Pettus Bridge as easily as one of her beaten body lying on the bridge in 1965. Sadly, it wasn't Bruce pushing her wheelchair on that anniversary day.

But his life story is a reminder that great changes often arise from small hurts, and a decision not to put up with that hurt any longer.


Bruce Boynton, who has died aged 83, was a key figure in the American civil rights movement, whose protest was as crucial as Rosa Parks’ on the buses of Montgomery, Alabama. His 1960 victory before the US Supreme Court in Boyton v Commonwealth of Virginia sparked five years of protests that eventually led to the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts passed by Congress in 1964 and 1965.

His simple motivation was hunger. In December 1958, Boynton, in his final year of law school in Washington DC, boarded a Trailways bus to return home to Alabama for Christmas. At a stop in Richmond, Virginia, he sat in the whites only section of the terminal’s lunch counter, because the “coloured” area had water on the floor and looked unsanitary. He asked for a cheeseburger and cup of tea, but the waitress returned with her manager. As Boyton described it, “he poked his finger in my face and said ‘N***** move’, and I knew I would not move.” He was arrested for criminal trespass, convicted in state court of violating Virginia’s segregation law, and fined ten dollars. He decided to appeal the conviction.

His case was argued before the Supreme Court by Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first black justice on that court just seven years later. They ruled, on a 7-2 vote, that so-called “separate but equal” facilities violated the constitutional right to equality. Since interstate transport was subject to federal regulation, the Interstate Commerce Commission was required to see states obey federal law. Within a year, “Freedom Riders” were organising bus rides through the South to challenge segregated facilities; future Congressman John Lewis was one of 13 riders on the first bus, and beaten in a rest stop in South Carolina. Another bus was fire-bombed in Anniston, Alabama. Also inspired by Boynton, sit-ins soon took place at lunch counters throughout the South.

Resistance to the American version of apartheid came naturally to Boynton. He was born 19 June 1937 in Selma, Alabama, where his parents Sam and Amelia (nee Platts) were both active in voter registration; Amelia registered to vote in 1932, no mean feat for a woman in a state where huge obstacles faced any black person desiring to exercise their rights. Both parents had attended the Tuskegee Institute and studied under the renowned botanist George Washington Carver, who was Bruce’s godfather and source of his middle name. Bruce was a precocious student, finishing high school at 14 and winning his BA from Fisk University at 18. He would receive his law degree from Howard University at 21.

With his degree, he returned to Alabama, but while the state bar association spent six years ‘investigating’ his conviction for trespass, he moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee where he worked defending sit-in protestors. In 1965, his mother was beaten savagely on America’s Bloody Sunday, at the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, the start of a march on the state capital in Montgomery; photos of her went round the world. In 2015, when President Barack Obama led a march across the bridge on Bloody Sunday’s 50th anniversary, he held hands with Emilia Boynton, then 103 years old, in her wheelchair.

Finally practising in Alabama, Bruce defended notable activists such as Stokley Carmichael, and was himself attacked by a county sheriff and two deputies. He defended one client with a plea of insanity caused by endemic racial abuse. Eventually, Boynton became the state’s first black special prosecutor, investigating a white mayor accused of attacking a black man, and then Alabama’s first black county attorney. Later feeling frustrated by what he felt was a lack of support from the black community, he returned to Washington to practice civil rights law, before coming back to Selma in private practice.

In May 2018, Boynton was honoured in Montgomery, where a courthouse was named after him. He received an award on behalf of the Freedom Riders, presented by Hank Thomas, a former state legislator who was another of the original 13 Freedom Riders and the only living survivor of the Anniston fire-bombing. “I decided to follow you and do what you had done,” Thomas said, “and it damn near killed me”.

Bruce Carter Boyton

born 19 June 1937 Selma, Alabama

died 24 November 2020, Montgomery Alabama

survived by his second wife, Betty and two daughters

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