Civil rights activist and Selma native Attorney Bruce Boynton, whose landmark Supreme Court case spurred the 1960s “Freedom Rides,” died on November 23 at age 83.
Boynton served as Alabama’s first Black special prosecutor and was the first and only Black county attorney in the state at the time. His efforts helped to desegregate the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee where he started his practice while he awaited confirmation to work as a lawyer in Alabama. His mother, Amelia Boynton Robinson was a well-known civil rights activist and foot soldier on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
When Boynton was a law student at Howard University in Washington D.C., he was arrested in Richmond, Virginia, after he refused to leave the “whites-only” section of a Trailways bus station in December 1958. Thurgood Marshall — who later became the country’s first Black Supreme Court justice — represented Boynton in the case against the Commonwealth of Virginia that eventually traveled all the way up to the nation’s highest court.
In 1960, the Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision that federal prohibitions barring segregation on interstate buses also extended to bus stations and interstate travel facilities. That ruling was all that was needed for a group of enterprising students and activists to begin boarding buses throughout the South in a bid to end segregation on public transit; among them were the late John Lewis and Reverend C.T. Vivian.
Boynton’s death comes about two weeks shy of the ruling’s 60th anniversary on December 5.
“Selma, AL native Attorney Bruce Boynton was a Civil Rights pioneer. His ardent belief in equality for all led him to stand tall against segregation at a Richmond, VA Trailways Bus Station in December 1958, a decision that would have incredible magnitude and impact,” said Lisa Demetropoulos Jones, executive director of the Alabama Historical Commision.
Boynton’s legacy and that of the Freedom Riders who faced violence and death in pursuit of American democracy are memorialized at Montgomery’s Freedom Rides Museum — the former Greyhound Bus Station where riders were attacked by a white mob in May 1961.