S.C. woman was an unsung hero of civil rights era

02/14/2013 6:21 AM

02/14/2013 6:40 AM

More than a year before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, a young black woman from Eastover took a similar stand in Columbia.

Sarah Mae Flemming was just 20 years old when she took a seat June 22, 1954, in what was deemed the “whites-only” section of a segregated city bus operated by South Carolina Electric and Gas.

In the Jim Crow-era, the line dividing the races on South Carolina buses was a visible reminder of the daily division among races in the South. In Columbia, that line could shift on any given day depending on whether more black or white people were riding, but one rule was firm – blacks were never to sit in front of whites.

When Flemming, who was a maid at the time, took her seat, she sat down in front of two white people. The bus driver humiliated her by blocking her with his arm and accusing her of sitting in the “whites-only” part of the bus.

Encouraged by area civil rights activists and attorneys, Flemming filed suit against SCE&G.

Her case was rejected by federal court in Columbia but went on to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. The high court struck down segregation on city buses, and Flemming’s win became big news in black newspapers across the country.

However, despite her victory, Flemming’s role largely would be overshadowed by more publicized events in the civil rights movement such as the Parks case.

“I really don’t know why it didn’t get more national attention,” said longtime Columbia attorney Hemphill Pride II.

Pride, who first learned about Flemming when he was in law school at Florida A&M University, speculated that perhaps the timing of the Parks case, which went on to end segregated buses, had something to do with it.

“Rosa Parks came around right at the time when the civil rights movement was rising,” he said.

Pride, now 76, went on to work with the late judge Matthew Perry, who argued Flemming’s case.

Flemming died of a heart attack in 1993 at age 59 but her story has picked up some steam in recent years. In 2005, it was released as a documentary, “Before Rosa: Sarah Mae Flemming’s Unsung Contribution,” and is now listed on several educational websites.

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