Remembering Bruce Boynton: the Activist Who Was Arrested and Jailed for Ordering Burger at a Whites Only Restaurant

Bruce Carver Boynton may not be a household name for many, but his courage and determination played a pivotal role in the fight against racial segregation in the United States. Boynton’s simple act of ordering a cheeseburger in a whites-only restaurant sparked a legal battle that led to significant changes in the country’s discriminatory practices.

Remembering Bruce Boynton: the Activist Who Was Arrested and Jailed for Ordering Burger at a Whites Only Restaurant

Born on June 19, 1937, in Selma, Alabama, Boynton was raised in a family deeply committed to the civil rights movement. His parents, known locally as Mr. and Mrs. Civil Rights, instilled in him a sense of justice and activism from a young age. Boynton’s upbringing in the racially charged atmosphere of the American South undoubtedly influenced his later actions and beliefs.

In the winter of 1958, while studying at Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., Boynton embarked on a bus trip home to Selma. During a layover in Richmond, Virginia, he made a fateful decision to enter a segregated restaurant and order a cheeseburger and a cup of hot tea.

When instructed to relocate to the designated “black” section, Boynton asserted his status as an American citizen with federal rights. He firmly insisted that he was entitled to his meal of burger and tea. Upon his refusal to leave, an officer was called and he was handcuffed and arrested on a misdemeanor trespass charge, he spent the night in jail and was fined $10 in a Richmond municipal court.

Refusing to accept the injustice, Boynton decided to challenge his arrest in court. Represented by Martin A. Martin, he contested the charges, ultimately taking his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. His case, known as Boynton v. Virginia, was argued by Thurgood Marshall, who later became a justice of the Supreme Court. The court overturned Boynton’s conviction, affirming that racial segregation in public transportation facilities, including restaurants, was unconstitutional.

Boynton’s courageous stand not only secured his own rights but also inspired others to join the struggle for racial equality. His actions paved the way for the Freedom Riders movement in 1961, where activists rode interstate buses through the South to protest segregated terminals and facilities. The Freedom Rides, though met with violence and opposition, brought national attention to the injustices of segregation and prompted then-President John F. Kennedy to enforce anti-discrimination laws.

Remembering Bruce Boynton: the Activist Who Was Arrested and Jailed for Ordering Burger at a Whites Only Restaurant
After the ruling, dozens of black and white students set out on buses to travel the South and test whether the ruling in the case, Bruce Boynton v. Virginia, was being followed..

Boynton eventually earned his law degree from Howard University. However, Alabama refused to grant him a law license for six years while they “investigated the circumstances” of Boynton v. Virginia. Consequently, he was compelled to relocate to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to practice law until Alabama finally granted him a license in 1965. Throughout most of his career, Boynton worked as a civil rights attorney until his retirement. Notably, he served as Alabama’s first Black special prosecutor.

In 2018, Phillip McCallum, the executive director of the Alabama State Bar, issued an apology to Boynton for the delay in granting his license.

Bruce Boynton passed away on November 23, 2020, at the age of 83, leaving behind a legacy of courage, and an unwavering commitment to the principles of equality and justice.

Mr Madu
Mr Madu
Mr Madu is a freelance writer, a lover of Africa and a frequent hiker who loves long, vigorous walks, usually on hills or mountains.


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