“All he wanted was a cheeseburger,” Judge Myron Thompson of United States District Court in Alabama said at an event two years ago honoring Bruce C. Boynton, “and he changed the course of history.”
The reference was to a moment at a bus terminal in Richmond, Va., in December 1958, when Mr. Boynton, then a law student traveling home to Alabama from Washington, tried to get something to eat during a 40-minute stopover. At a restaurant in the terminal, Mr. Boynton, a Black man, sat in the section reserved for white people because, he said later, the Black section was crowded, had water on the floor and appeared unsanitary.
There was an exchange of words with the assistant manager, a police officer was called, and Mr. Boynton was charged under Virginia law with a misdemeanor for remaining “upon the lands or premises of another, after having been forbidden to do so.” He was fined $10, but he appealed.
In 1960, the case, Boynton v. Virginia, reached the United States Supreme Court, with Thurgood Marshall, who would soon become a Supreme Court justice himself, arguing for Mr. Boynton. The court found in Mr. Boynton’s favor, ruling that as an interstate traveler he was protected from discrimination under the Interstate Commerce Act.
Though the ruling was not a blanket condemnation of discriminatory practices in restaurants, the case was a significant steppingstone in the growing civil rights movement of the early 1960s. And it led directly to the Freedom Riders protests of 1961, in which bus riders, both Black and white, traveled from Washington into the Deep South to test whether the provisions of Boynton v. Virginia and another case, Morgan v. Virginia, were being carried out.
The Freedom Riders — the future congressman John Lewis was one — were attacked, beaten and arrested. One bus was firebombed. Eventually, President John F. Kennedy’s administration intervened. The protests helped build momentum toward the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Mr. Boynton died on Monday at a hospital in Montgomery, Ala., at 83. His daughter Carver Ann Boynton said the cause was cancer.
Mr. Boynton was a low-profile figure in civil rights history. Far more people knew of his mother, Amelia Boynton Robinson, who helped organize the famous 1965 voting rights march known as Bloody Sunday, during which she was beaten senseless by state troopers as protesters tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Ala.; photographs of her crumpled body appeared around the world. His mother, whom Mr. Boynton called a “tower of defiance,” survived the beating and continued to work for civil rights.
Mr. Boynton, on the rare occasions when he was interviewed about Boynton v. Virginia, spoke simply about it. “I was hungry and just wanted a cheeseburger and a cup of hot tea on that cold night,” he told The Montgomery Advertiser in 2016. “I also pointed out that, as an American citizen, I was entitled to get that burger and tea.”
Bruce Carver Boynton — his middle name was in tribute to his godfather, his parents’ friend George Washington Carver — was born in Selma on June 19, 1937. His mother, Amelia (Platts) Boynton, was a lecturer, author and civil rights activist, and his father, Samuel, was a county extension agent.
“I grew up watching my parents working hard to register Black people to vote,” he told The Advertiser in 2015. “My dad started doing that as far back as 1929, and my mother wasn’t far behind him.”
His father died in 1963. His mother, who remarried, died in 2015 at 104.
Mr. Boynton grew up in Selma and graduated from R.B. Hudson High School there when he was just 14. Four years later he earned an undergraduate degree at Fisk University in Nashville.
He was at Howard University Law School in Washington when he made the fateful bus ride home to Alabama in 1958. The case turned on a relatively limited question: whether the restaurant in the bus terminal was an extension of the bus line, Trailways, and thus whether it, like the bus, was subject to the provisions of the Interstate Commerce Act, which prohibited discrimination on interstate public transportation. The Supreme Court, overturning the Virginia Supreme Court, decided that it was and ruled 7-2 in Mr. Boynton’s favor.
The case, although he won it, gave Mr. Boynton trouble for some years. After he graduated from Howard Law at age 21, not long after the incident in Richmond, the Alabama bar denied him a law license for six years while it supposedly investigated the circumstances of the case.
As a result, he began his law practice in Chattanooga, Tenn., working on civil rights issues. He was finally admitted to the Alabama bar in 1965, and he practiced in Selma for a number of years before establishing a practice in Washington. Later he returned to practice again in Selma.
Mr. Boynton married Alice Cutler in 1973; she died in 2001. In addition to his daughter Carver, from that marriage, he is survived by his second wife, Betty Strong Boynton, whom he married in 2008; another daughter, Aimee Emma Meredith, from a relationship with Charlye Frances Nolan; his stepchildren Valerie, Mark and Jackie Simmons and James, Annie Kate, Clarence and Marco Strong; two cousins who were his adopted siblings, Germain Bowser and Sharon Seay; and four grandchildren.
At the 2018 event honoring Mr. Boynton, Phillip McCallum, executive director of the Alabama State Bar, issued him an apology for the fact that his Alabama law license had been held up a half- century earlier.
On Monday, the day he died, the Dallas County Commission of Alabama voted to approve a resolution, put forward earlier, to rename an annex of the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma in honor of Mr. Boynton and another prominent Black lawyer, J.L. Chestnut Jr.
“Yesterday, I told him that the annex was going to be named after him,” Betty Boynton told The Selma Times-Journal, “and he looked at me and he smiled.”
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