Civil Rights in Columbia

Columbia woman who defied ‘whites only’ rule to be honored

A local civil rights trailblazer will be honored Friday when Columbia city officials and others unveil a street marker carrying her name.

The corner of Washington and Main Streets will be formally named Sarah Mae Flemming Way during a 9 a.m. ceremony at that location.

The unveiling is being made by The Columbia SC 63 committee — a collaboration of the city of Columbia, Historic Columbia Foundation, the University of South Carolina and Columbia Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau – to honor the late civil rights activist, advocate and pioneer.

“We are proud to honor her and all the unsung heroes here in Columbia and across the nation who risked all to create a new world of opportunity and equality for all,” said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who will be among Friday’s speakers.

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

Flemming, who was a maid at the time, took her seat in front of two white people, and 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 headlined black newspapers nationwide.

Despite her victory, Flemming’s role largely was overshadowed by more publicized events in the civil rights movement, such as the Rosa Parks case.

Columbia City Council earlier this month approved a resolution recognizing the renaming of the corner, a move that organizers say will be a lasting indication of the long-fought battle African-Americans endured during the period while also showing how far the city and nation have come.

“Sarah Mae Flemming wasn’t looking for a fight, she wasn’t looking for a cause and she wasn’t looking for history,” Benjamin said. “But when history found her she chose to act and through her courage, commitment and the sheer force of her will struck a blow for justice, laying the foundation in action and law for another woman in Montgomery, Alabama, named Rosa Parks.”

Friday’s ceremony is open to the public.

If you go

What: Official unveiling of Sarah Mae Flemming Way marker

When: 9 a.m. Friday

Where: Corner of Main and Washington streets

Admission: Free and open to the public