Palmetto Opinion

Before Rosa Parks, there was SC’s Sara Mae Flemming

Joel Collins
Joel Collins

At the 60th anniversary of the brave bus ride of Rosa Parks in Birmingham, Ala., some have said her case marked the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in this country. I beg to differ. While Rosa Parks deserves to be honored, there was an earlier and similar case here in South Carolina, handled by Matthew Perry and his partner, Lincoln Jenkins.

On June 22, 1954, Sara Mae Flemming, an African-American, boarded a bus operated by SCE&G at the corner of Main and Taylor streets in Columbia. She was traveling to work at one of her two jobs as a domestic employee for white residents in Shandon. The bus was crowded, and many passengers were standing. The black passengers, as required by law, were seated or standing in the rear of the bus. When a white woman rose from her seat on the second row to exit the bus, Ms. Flemming took the seat. The bus driver ordered her to vacate the seat and exit the rear door. While Ms. Flemming was not arrested, she was humiliated and physically assaulted.

On July 21, 1954, just two months after the famous Supreme Court decision in Brown v The Board of Education, Flemming’s case was filed in federal court. Lawyers for SCE&G moved to dismiss it because the bus driver had acted in accordance with S.C. law, which not only authorized strict segregation on buses but required it. Bus drivers were designated as “special policemen” to enforce the “separate but equal” public accommodations law, and a bus company or driver could be criminally charged for failing to do so.

The motion to dismiss was granted, but it was overturned by the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Ms. Flemming was vindicated. However, an all-male, all-white jury found for the bus company at trial. Matthew Perry declined to appeal, saying the case “obviously served its purpose.”

All this happened at a time when elected leaders bitterly complained that the Brown decision was an unwarranted invasion of state and municipal rights. All over South Carolina, there were billboards calling to impeach U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren.

It was not until December 1, 1955 — more than 17 months after the Sarah Mae Flemming incident — that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.

We should be proud of the leadership of brave S.C. lawyers in the struggle for civil rights. Years later, Matthew Perry was made a federal judge. Our U.S. Courthouse in Columbia rightfully bears his name.

Joel W. Collins Jr.