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One could accurately say that history shifted because the late Bruce Boynton craved a cheeseburger.

A Black law student at Howard University in Washington, Boynton was en route home to Alabama on Christmas break in 1958 when his Trailways bus made a rest stop at a terminal in Richmond, Va.

Noting that the Black section of the restaurant there seemed neglected, he sat in the whites-only area and ordered his burger. When a manager appeared and told him to move using a racial slur, Boynton refused, and got arrested for trespassing.

He mounted a challenge through his lawyer, one Thurgood Marshall, and the case went all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court – an institution Marshall would later join as its first Black justice.

A few years before he died in 2020, Boynton, who became an advocate for civil rights, told a newspaper interviewer, “I was hungry and just wanted a cheeseburger and a cup of hot tea on that cold night.”

The outcome of Boynton’s appeal was historic; the court in 1960 voted 7-2 to ban racial segregation on buses and in bus stations. The case became an inspiration for the Freedom Rides movement of 1961.

The past is replete with such accounts of ordinary people whose circumstances intersected with history: 

– Rosa Parks and her own story of bus-related defiance. 

– Frank Wills, a janitor at the Watergate office building who discovered the break-in that toppled Richard Nixon in disgrace.

– Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the terrified, fleeing “napalm girl” whose 1972 photo came to define the errors of our Vietnam incursion and the carnage of any war.

And then there’s Norma McCorvey, who rocked American judicial history because she got pregnant. 

Mostly, we know her only as the anonymous “Jane Roe,” from Roe v. Wade.

But McCorvey, who died in 2017, was much more than a legalistic pseudonym.  

Reared in Louisiana and Texas by an alcoholic and abusive mother, she started life in 1947 by yet another name, Norma Nelson. Her father, Olin Nelson, left the family when she was 9.

At age 10 she stole money from a gas station cash register. Soon she became a public ward, and from ages 11 to 15 lived in a state school for girls. When she aged out she lived with a distant relative who repeatedly raped her before her mother found out and retrieved her. 

Working as a roller-skating carhop in 1963, she met Elwood McCorvey, her abusive husband. She left him at age 18 and had her first child, a girl assigned to the custody of her mother.

Identifying as a lesbian and frequenting gay bars, McCorvey despite that became pregnant again during a hookup with a male acquaintance. She offered the baby for adoption and turned to drugs.

In 1969 she conceived the child who would inspire Roe v. Wade, falsely asserting she had been raped and wanted to end the pregnancy.

But abortion was illegal in Texas unless the life of the mother was at risk, so with the aid of two feminist lawyers, the 21-year-old sued Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade, asserting the law violated a constitutional right to privacy.  The case rose to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1973 issued the ruling that would govern women’s reproductive rights for decades.

The decision came far too late for McCorvey herself. Early in the legal process she delivered a girl she gave up for adoption.

Years after the court’s ruling, having become a born-again Christian and then converting to Catholicism, she embraced anti-abortion views and in 2003 filed unsuccessfully to have Roe overturned.

So Norma McCorvey, swept up by the currents of history as Jane Roe, was denied her wishes both early and late in her troubled life.

Debate swirled on whether her publicized change of heart on abortion was genuine, or fueled by payments from anti-abortion advocates.  Still, for nearly half a century the legacy of her pain, missteps and contradictions lit a flame of hope for despairing women.

Now, with a wave of the judicial hand, that flame gutters – and in many states women are returning to the time when a pregnant 21-year-old, damaged and frightened, weighed her destiny in the backwaters of 1969 Texas.

Gerry Goldstein (gerryg76@verizon.net), a frequent contributor, is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.

Gerry Goldstein

Gerry Goldstein, an occasional contributor to What's Up, is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist who has been writing for Rhode Island newspapers and magazines for 60 years