Columbia City of Women Honoree
Sarah Mae Flemming
Sarah Mae Flemming became the public face of the fight to desegregate intrastate transport in South Carolina after being assaulted on a bus for sitting in the wrong seat. After more than three years of dismissals, appeals, and two trials, Flemming received no financial compensation, yet the ruling by the US 4th Court of Appeals in her case, Sarah Mae Flemming vs. South Carolina Electric & Gas, struck down segregation on buses, and provided the legal roadmap for Rosa Parks’ case a year later.
On June 22, 1954, Sarah Mae Flemming walked from her home at 1107 Page Street and boarded a bus operated by the South Carolina Electric & Gas Company (SCE&G) at the intersection of Main and Taylor streets, a routine she followed every weekday morning on her way to work. Flemming, just four days shy of her twenty-first birthday, worked as a maid for a white family in one of Columbia’s affluent suburbs. Despite the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education the previous month, which declared “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional, South Carolina’s public spaces remained rigidly segregated. The placement of the color line on Columbia’s SCE&G buses, which shifted with the number of black and white riders, was enforced by the drivers, who were legally vested with the powers of a deputy sheriff.
That morning, Flemming took the seat of a white woman who was exiting the bus. To her left were two African American women and several white women sat closer to the front. According to Flemming’s testimony two years later, the driver, Warren H. Christmus, told her, “Can’t you wait until someone gets off the bus before you sit down? Get up. And I mean right now.” In his defense at trial, Christmus explained that she was sitting in front of two white people.
Embarrassed, Flemming pulled the cord for the next stop, located at Main and Washington streets, despite it being more than two miles from her employers’ home. According to Flemming, Christmus blocked her from exiting the front door of the bus with a punch, forcing her back down the aisle to the rear door. She returned home and then to the hospital, where she was examined and released. She did not mention the incident to her family the following week. Soon after, Modjeska Monteith Simkins, state secretary for the South Carolina National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (SC NAACP), heard about the altercation and saw an opportunity to strike another blow to legalized segregation. She hired attorney Phillip Wittenberg, who had tried a similar case and had it dismissed on appeal. On July 21, 1954, Wittenberg filed suit on Flemming’s behalf in federal court, alleging that her 14th amendment rights had been violated, and asked for $25,000 in actual and punitive damages.
Like Simkins, her newfound advocate, Flemming was the eldest child of farmers who owned substantial land, but their similarities largely end there. Her parents, Mack and Rosetta Flemming, raised seven children on 130 acres about four miles north of Eastover. Mr. Flemming also worked on WPA-funded road construction projects. Descendants of men and women enslaved in lower Richland County, neither of the Flemmings received more than an elementary school education. Sarah Mae Flemming entered the workforce after completing 10th grade at the segregated Webber School in Eastover. She then spent the early 1950s working as a maid and sending most of her paycheck to her parents to help support her younger siblings. The lawsuit would thrust her into the national spotlight more than 16 months before Rosa Parks took her seat aboard a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
On February 16, 1955, Judge George Bell Timmerman dismissed the case on the grounds that while “separate but equal” school facilities had been ruled unconstitutional, the statute allowing for “separate facilities for the races in defendant’s busses” had not. In coordination with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDEF), led by Thurgood Marshall, local attorneys Matthew J. Perry and Lincoln C. Jenkins joined Wittenberg for the appeal heard by the US Fourth Circuit Court on June 21, 1955. That court overruled Timmerman on July 14, “noting the old doctrine that separate but equal facilities for Negroes are constitutional can no longer be ‘regarded as a correct statement of the law.’” (The State, August 2, 1955). The Chicago Defender touted the ruling two weeks later with the headline, “Court Bans Segregation on City Buses in Dixie.”
"It was the right thing to do. I only hope it won't lead to trouble."
By then, Timmerman’s son, George Bell Timmerman, Jr., had been elected and installed as the 105th governor of South Carolina. Governor Timmerman, SC Attorney General T.C. Callison, and Mayor J. Clarence Dreher, Jr., pledged to aid SCE&G in bringing the appeal to the Supreme Court. The highest court dismissed the appeal as frivolous on April 23, 1956, leaving most observers sure that the ban on segregation on intrastate buses was deemed unconstitutional. Callison called it “another unwarranted invasion of state and municipal rights,” and the leaders of the Citizens Councils of South Carolina claimed the ruling was “dictatorial and unconstitutional.” Flemming, speaking to the Associated Press, offered two sentiments: “It was the right thing to do,” and “I only hope it won’t lead to trouble.” (The State, April 25, 1956)
Judge Timmerman would subsequently preside over two trials in 1956 and 1957, both with all-white, all-male juries. In describing the proceedings, The State reporters repeatedly referred to the now-married Flemming as “the Flemming woman,” or “the Brown woman,” and her witness, an African American woman named Elizabeth King, as “the King woman.” The first trial began June 12, 1956, with Sarah Mae Brown represented once again by Phillip Wittenberg. That night, the Ku Klux Klan burned an eight-foot-tall cross in his yard. Timmerman dismissed the case the following day, before the defense could present witnesses. Brown, represented by Lincoln C. Jenkins and Robert L. Carter, again successfully appealed before the US Fourth Circuit Court, who on November 29, 1956 sent the case back to Timmerman. The final trial, in which Matthew J. Perry joined Jenkins for the plaintiff, proceeded to jury deliberations on June 11, 1957. After 30 minutes, they decided SCE&G still owed Sarah Mae Flemming Brown nothing.
Brown and her husband lived the rest of their lives in Eastover, raising three children: John Earl, Wanda, and Bruce. She died in 1993 at the age of 59, having never spoken publicly about her role in ending segregated travel accommodations.
Flemming’s heroic act and determination served as a powerful example for individuals such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. as they continued the quest for justice and equality.
Dr. Bobby Donaldson