Profile: Bruce Boynton (1937-2020)

Bruce Carver Boynton was an American civil rights leader who inspired the Freedom Riders movement and advanced the cause of racial equality by a landmark supreme court case Boynton v. Virginia.

Early life

Boynton grew up in Selma, Alabama. His parents were civil rights activists, known in their community as Mr. and Mrs. Civil Rights, because of their participation in events like the Bloody Sunday march of 1965. His mother, Amelia Boynton Robinson, was beaten during demonstrations for voting rights in 1965, and 50 years later was honored by then-President Barack Obama.

Boynton v. Virginia

In 1958, Boynton ordered a cheeseburger while sitting in a whites only part of a restaurant at a bus station in Richmond, Virginia. He was arrested for trespassing after he refused to leave the restaurant and spent one night in jail. He was a law student at Howard University at the time, and decided to fight his arrest in court. At trial, he was represented by Martin A. Martin. He lost his case, but decided to appeal, until finally his case reached 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 was illegal.

In 2018 U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson said of Boynton: “He did something that very few people would have the courage to do. He said no. To me he’s on par with Rosa Parks,” referring to the Black woman who did not give up her seat in the front part of a segregated bus to a white man. Summarizing his impact, Thompson went on to say, “All he wanted was a cheeseburger, and he changed the course of history.”

Boynton’s actions inspired the Freedom Rides in 1961, where activists rode interstate buses through the Southern United States to protest segregated bus terminals. While the Freedom Riders were arrested in a few southern states, including Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina, the actions prompted the then President John F. Kennedy to pass orders for a strict enforcement of the federal anti-discrimination laws.


Boynton received a law degree from Howard University, and practiced as a civil rights attorney for most of his career until he retired. He served as Alabama’s first Black special prosecutor.

Death and legacy

Boynton died on November 24, 2020, at the age of 83, two weeks before the 60th anniversary of his landmark case. His death was announced by former Alabama State Senator Henry Sanders.

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