University of South Carolina

USC historians want South Carolinians to know their civil rights history

By Frenche` Brewer, brewer4@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-3691

A little known story from South Carolina black history is about a woman named Sarah Mae Flemming.

On June 22, 1954, Flemming boarded a Columbia bus to go to work. She took the only empty seat in the section of the bus where black riders were allowed to sit. The bus driver told her she could not sit in that seat and ordered her to move. When she signaled to get off at the next stop, the bus driver blocked her attempt to exit through the front of the bus and punched her in the stomach as he ordered her out the rear door.

Flemming's defiant stand against racial injustice began 17 months before Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on an Alabama bus in 1955 in an event celebrated as a seminal moment in the civil rights movement. Columbia civil rights organizers jumped to Flemming's defense and hired a local white attorney to represent her in a civil suit against bus operator South Carolina Electric and Gas. Flemming claimed her right to equal protection guaranteed by the 14th Amendment had been violated.

Flemming lost the initial case then won on appeal. The bus operator's appeal of that decision ultimately led to the case being dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of the company.

Flemming's story is just one of many exemplifying South Carolina's role in shaping the civil rights movement. Yet the stories are largely untold or hidden away in personal memories and private collections.

Ken Vogler, education professor at the University of South Carolina, wants more South Carolinians to know about that history.

Vogler, along with Allen Stokes, former director of USC’s South Caroliniana Library, and other university departments is launching a project to collect and preserve critical pieces of South Carolina’s history pertaining to the civil rights movement, thanks to a $100,000 grant awarded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The purpose of the project, “Lift Every Voice: Capturing and Teaching Civil Rights History Narrative,” is to locate the personal histories and artifacts of the era before they are lost or destroyed, archive the materials already collected and create a permanent exhibition and an online database.

“This would allow a diverse audience access to the materials and the opportunity for future generations to learn the history of South Carolina,” Vogler says.

The challenge right now is finding out where all of this information is, who has it and how to validate it.

A national forum will be held at USC in May to bring together historians, archivists, librarians and civil rights activists to discuss the challenges of collecting, archiving, presenting and teaching civil rights history in the classrooms across the country.

“This national forum will have a profound impact on the way archives and libraries influence the collection, presentation, instruction and preservation of the nation’s vanishing civil rights history,” Vogler says.

Community leaders from around the state will be invited to the last day of the forum to offer ideas of how they can help preserve history and integrate the historical materials into educational programs.

Once located, the materials may be housed at the South Caroliniana Library or another archival repository.

Posted: 02/01/13 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 02/05/13 @ 5:15 PM | Permalink