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Civil Rights Icon Bruce Boynton Dies At 83

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All he wanted was a cheeseburger. When Bruce Boynton entered a segregated bus station and went to a part of a restaurant reserved for white people, he started a chain of events that led to a major civil rights victory. Boynton died yesterday at the age of 83 in Montgomery, Ala. Troy Public Radio's Kyle Gassiott has this remembrance.

KYLE GASSIOTT, BYLINE: Bruce Boynton grew up in Selma, the child of parents who were known as Mr. and Mrs. Civil Rights due to their participation in events such as the 1965 Bloody Sunday March. In 1958, on a bus ride home from D.C., where he was a student at Howard University, Boynton got off in Richmond, Va., and went into the restaurant, sat in the whites-only section and ordered the cheeseburger and a cup of tea.

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BRUCE BOYNTON: I gave the waitress the order. She left, and I thought that she had taken the order. But she came back with the manager. And the manager took his finger and stuck it in my face.

GASSIOTT: And using a racial slur, the manager told him to leave. Boynton was arrested on trespassing charges and spent a night in jail. As a young law student, he decided to challenge his arrest in court and lost. But the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where he was represented by none other than Thurgood Marshall, who would later become a justice. And the court overturned the conviction in Boynton v. Virginia, which affirmed that racial segregation in public transportation is illegal.

MYRON THOMPSON: He just thought the law should live up to its promise of equality.

GASSIOTT: Myron Thompson is a U.S. district judge in Montgomery. He believes that Boynton should be one of the household names that is associated with the civil rights movement, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

THOMPSON: When he was arrested for doing what the law should permit him to do, he went and filed a lawsuit, and he changed it for everyone.

GASSIOTT: Later, protesters known as Freedom Riders would test the Boynton ruling by riding buses through the South and eating in bus terminals. And they were beaten savagely by segregationists for doing so. In later life, Boynton became a civil rights attorney and also served as Alabama's first Black special prosecutor. Thompson says that what Boynton did in the Richmond bus station is on par with Rosa Parks' actions and the Montgomery bus boycott, which was a protest that had been extensively planned with many involved. But in this case...

THOMPSON: Mr. Boynton was different because when he acted, he acted alone.

GASSIOTT: Boynton's death comes two weeks before the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision which changed his life and many others.

For NPR News, I'm Kyle Gassiott in Montgomery.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN TINGVALL'S "THE ROCKET III") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.