The fight for equal rights on public transportation did not begin with Rosa Parks in Birmingham, Alabama as many people believe. In South Carolina it began with a twenty-year-old African American young lady named Sarah Mae Fleming in Columbia, South Carolina. Sarah Mae did not reach the fame of Mrs. Parks, but she did find success in her fight for equality for African Americans and all citizens of the United States.
In June of 1954, Sarah was on her way home from her job as a maid and was ordered by Warren Christmus, the bus driver, to give up her seat in the front of the bus. Sarah apparently did not know that blacks were to always stand, even if whites did not need the seat (“Riding with Rosa”, A9). She refused and the bus driver called the police. Sarah was arrested and subsequently sued South Carolina Electric and Gas, the owners and operators of the bus system in Columbia (“Courtroom Victories”, A14). She also claimed that she was hit by the driver as she exited the bus. Another African American woman witnessed the attack and reported it to the bus company. (“Riding with Rosa”, A9) Sadie Brevard, another maid in Columbia, faced similar charges four months later. Sadie’s case was never taken to court because she worked for an influential family in Columbia (Moore 1993, 421).
Sarah Fleming claimed her rights under the fourteenth amendment of the United States constitution had been violated by the driver’s actions (“Fleming v. South Carolina Electric and Gas”, 2006). The 14th Amendment states that any person born in the United States is automatically a citizen of this country. This amendment states all citizens have the right to due process under the law and gives all citizens equal protection. It goes on to state that no citizen should be deprived of their life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness (“14th Amendment to the Constitution”, 2007).
Phillip Whittenburg, a young white lawyer, originally took the case (“Riding with Rosa”, A9). Later he was joined by Thurgood Marshall and Matthew Perry. The NAACP sponsored the suit on behalf of Mrs. Fleming. Although the US Supreme Court had already ruled that segregation on city buses was against the law, the South Carolina Public Service Commission decided to uphold the South Carolina state law which supported segregation (Moore 1993, 421). The Fleming case was brought before Justice Timmerman, the judge for the eastern district of South Carolina, on February 16, 1955. Although the suit was based on the same principles as that of Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that separate was not inherently equal, the judgment declared that Fleming’s claim failed to meet the requirements for relief and the case was dismissed. Justice Timmerman put forth that the Plessy v. Ferguson decision held that separation on public transportation was legal. The fight for equality on South Carolina buses did not end there.
Mrs. Fleming, the NAACP, and her lawyers appealed the ruling and the decision was reversed. The State Court of Appeals stated in their December 14, 1955 decision that Brown vs. Board did indeed cross all levels of society, including public transportation (‘Fleming v. South Carolina Electric and Gas”, 2006). The justices stated that "separate but equal" could not be fair and equal treatment of citizens in the United States (“Appeals Court Reverses Bus Segregation Ruling”, p1). This outcome was not the end of the road however, as South Carolina Electric and Gas appealed the State Court’s decision. The US Court of Appeals Fourth Circuit dismissed the appeal on April 23, 1956 and the US Supreme Court upheld the Appeals Court decisions on November 29, 1956 (“Fleming v. South Carolina Electric and Gas”, 2006).
Based on Sarah Mae Fleming and Rosa Parks’ struggle many people began to fight social injustice across the country. There was even a bus boycott in the upstate of South Carolina. Ruth Beatty, an African American woman from Spartanburg, was inspired by the work she saw and refused to ride the buses; others joined her in her stand however it was not successful in ending the racial segregation found in South Carolina. Jackie Booker, an associate professor at Claflin University states in her article “Riding with Rosa” that the Fleming case “laid the foundation for the end of segregation on public transportation and figured in to the Rosa Parks case.” (“Riding with Rosa”, A9)
Rosa Parks, a seamstress from Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat on a bus and was arrested.. The buses in Montgomery had clearly stated rules, the first four rows were reserved for whites, and the rear was for blacks. Middle rows could be used by blacks if no white person wanted the seats. Rosa got on the bus December 1, 1955 full of plans for her coming weekend and work she needed to accomplish for the NAACP. When bus driver James Blake ordered four black people to give up their seats in the middle rows so one white man could sit, three of the riders agreed, but Rosa refused and was ejected from the bus. Her arrest was the catalyst that many in Montgomery’s African American community were waiting for (“Rosa Parks, 92, Founding Symbol of Civil Rights Movement, Dies”, 2005). Rosa’s refusal and arrest led to a boycott of the bus system in Montgomery. The boycott turned out to be the greatest movement against racial segregation in history, both because of its size and success. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took up the cause of racial equality and led marches and meetings throughout Montgomery, and eventually the nation. The actions of Mrs. Parks, though simple in deed, turned out to be a giant step in our nations’ history. She made the cruelty and injustice heaped upon African Americans a front page story (“Rosa Parks, 92, Founding Symbol of Civil Rights Movement, Dies”, 2005). Sarah Mae Fleming and her bravery led to Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King waging an ever bigger fight for equality, this time in the national spotlight.