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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Pauli Murray, February 13, 1976. Interview G-0044. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Arrested for violation of segregation statutes and public disturbance

Murray discusses how she and her friend, Adelene McBean, were arrested for violating segregation statutes and creating a public disturbance on a Greyhound bus in Petersburg, Virginia, in 1940. In outlining the case, Murray describes how the NAACP came to their defense, at which point the state withdrew the charges of violating segregation statutes. This made it impossible to try the case as a civil rights test case despite the fact that the two women were still imprisoned for disturbing the peace. As such, Murray's comments reveal the kinds of obstacles that continued to block legal challenges to Jim Crow segregation during those years.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Pauli Murray, February 13, 1976. Interview G-0044. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

The second incident, for example, in 1940, having to do with interstate travel and public accommodation, the Petersburg, Virginia bus incident. I believe this was a Greyhound bus that you were riding on?
PAULI MURRAY:
Right.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
And you were arrested and convicted for resisting segregation on this bus, despite the fact that it was interstate travel, meaning that this was basically under federal jurisdiction. Would you like to tell us what to your mind were the most important issues involved in this case, why at this particular point in your life you decided to defy the statute, why you went on with the case, and what the eventual result was?
PAULI MURRAY:
Well, first I ought to say that I and my school friend who was arrested with me did not start out deliberately to protest the Virginia segregation statutes. As so often happened in those early days, an incident would arise out of almost intolerable situations. I mean, a person could be pushed into a position where there was just nothing you could do almost but fight back. In this particular situation, my friend and I were traveling from New York down to Durham to visit my two aunts at the ancestral home for Easter. My friend was West Indian in background and could not believe that there were such things as real segregation laws in the South. But she seemed to feel that American Negroes …you know that there is a kind of a cultural tension there …that American Negroes were just too timid and …
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
They just put up with it.
PAULI MURRAY:
Right.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
And her name was?
PAULI MURRAY:
Her name was Adelene McBean. Knowing that Mac, as we used to call her, knowing that Mac was volatile, I did everything I could to try to borrow a car to make this trip and with no success whatsoever. By this time, I no longer had my little car. It wound up that on Easter evening, we were headed from Washington to Durham on a Greyhound Bus. The bus that we started out on was a long, very nice bus, plenty of room. We probably sat somewhat to the rear of the center of the bus, having plenty of room for whites and plenty of room for Negroes. We stopped at Richmond, I guess, for a rest stop and lunch stop or whatnot and somehow, we were late getting back to the original bus, which rapidly filled up with people who were …this was, you know, beginning to be the real Easter weekend rush for local people. The long bus left us and we had to take the auxillary bus, which was a much smaller and much less comfortable bus. So, we got in and sat, again, slightly rear of center, or maybe even a little bit more than that. The way in which the people filled up made it clear that Negroes would fill the back of the bus, that there were plenty of Negroes. But somehow, the way in which the population, but population, shifted, brought on a considerable number of white people, more than had been on in the past. So, the time came when the driver came back and asked us to get up and move back. When I am looking out the window and seeing that there are going to be enough Negroes getting on to take care of all that back space, and so, there is no reason for me to move. And we so inform him. When he insists, we look behind us and find that the seat behind us is a broken seat. [END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A] [TAPE 2, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE B]
PAULI MURRAY:
… and the driver goes out and I suppose goes through all of the necessary business about drawing up a warrant or a warrant of arrest, or whatnot…still not quite ready to arrest us, you know, and finally bringing on the police and trying to make a deal. And it appears, since I want to get home for Easter, I don't want to be arrested, why am I making all this effort? To get home to my folks for Easter, apparently they are prepared to make a compromise, that we move back to this seat and they check the seat and find that it isn't really broken, that the cushion is out of place. But in the process, apparently the driver thinks that there might be a court case and so he goes up and gets a batch of volunteer name and address witness cards and routinely hands out all of these witness cards to every white person in the front of the bus and when he gets to the last white person, he then turns, you see. At which point, I say, "Driver, how about giving us some of those cards? We are also witnesses." At this point, they go out and get the cops and arrest us. So, it really has nothing to do with breaking the segregation law. It really has nothing to do with creating a disburbance, because if there were a disturbance, apparently the disturbance had subsided and so it was simply the whole southern custom that must be satisfied and you simply cannot break the taboo.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
And they charged you with what?
PAULI MURRAY:
They charged us with creating a disturbance, breaking the segregation law, violating the segregation law and creating a disturbance.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
Well, talking out of turn might have been creating a disturbance.
PAULI MURRAY:
Right. Somebody was going to Durham. I quickly gave them a note, my mother's name, telephone and gave her instructions to wire or call Walter White, who was Roy Wilkins' precedessor.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
Yes.
PAULI MURRAY:
In the NAACP. So that by …I suppose that this must have been somewhere around four or five o'clock in the afternoon and by evening, NAACP lawyers from Richmond were asking at the jail to see us.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
Was Oliver Hill involved?
PAULI MURRAY:
Oliver Hill, Cooley and Valentine, all NAACP lawyers. Meanwhile, the minute that we got into our jail cell, we sat down and did a report, a summary, immediately of the case, the facts, a chart of the bus, everything that we could think of that would be of any value in this case. When the lawyers came, we presented it to them and they looked it over and they said, "Well, this is practically as good as a lawyer's brief." So, this implied that you should study law. Well, I throw this in, because this again is one of the pointers toward law school. When the state discovered that the NAACP was going to challenge and probably use this as a test case, it withdrew the charge of the segregation statute and left standing the creation of a disturbance. I began to think, although I couldn't say it in these terms, I didn't have the legal skill, but they can't charge you …well, they can't do indirectly what they can't do directly. In other words, they are really using a disturbance charge to
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
To penalize you for another violation.
PAULI MURRAY:
Right and they are afraid to penalize you for what they really want to penalize you for, because they know that these laws are now increasingly under legal challenge and of course, this was 1940. In 1946, the identical statutes under which I was convicted were declared unconsitutional in Irene Morgan's case, Commonwealth vs. Morgan. So, it took six years.