By Thomas Marshall III, M.Ed. • Knowledge is Power • February 7, 2023 •
It was not until the summer of 2020, a time that etches in our brains as a racial reckoning in this country, that I learned about one of the South’s most important stories. Sarah Mae Flemming, an unsung civil rights trailblazer. Before Rosa Parks decided not to give up her seat in Montgomery in 1955, another young woman in Columbia, South Carolina, exercised that same resistance.
Though the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case had just declared segregation illegal in public schools, many spaces like buses and other public spaces remained staunchly segregated.
Ms. Flemming was coming home from work one morning and sat in the front of a South Carolina city bus, with two white people in behind her. The bus driver forcefully told Ms. Flemming to leave and blocked the doors as she vacated the bus.
Ms. Flemming waited a week to alert her family about the incident. Once she did, local South Carolina civil rights activist Modjeska Monteith Simkins hired attorneys to help Ms. Flemming file a suit, invoking the 14th Amendment. The case, initially struck down in South Carolina, was appealed and then taken to the Fourth Circuit. The court struck down segregation on city buses – a massive win for civil rights.
I became emotional when reading about Sarah Mae Flemming’s courageous conviction to resist such laws that ruled the Jim Crow South. Sarah Mae’s story happened 16 months before the “first lady of civil rights,” Rosa Parks, took her seat in history.
Sarah Mae stands out to me because she is from my hometown. She comes from descendants of enslaved people from the county where I attended school. Her’s is an untold story that many students won’t be able to hear in classrooms because certain politicians chose to dictate the way we teach our history.
“It was the right thing to do,” said Sarah Mae Flemming in The State, April 25, 1956
Let Ms. Flemming’s story be one to remind us that each day, in its simplest form: We must always do the right thing.