EJI's A Racial History of Injustice 2021 tells the story of Ms. Flemming's impact on the legal groundwork for ending segregation:
"On June 22, 1954, a year before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a young Black woman named Sarah Mae Flemming sat in the 'white only' section on a segregated bus in Columbia, South Carolina. The driver, legally vested with the powers of a deputy sheriff to enforce segregation, assaulted her as she attempted to exit.
The South Carolina NAACP identifies the incident as an opportunity to challenge segregation on the heels of the Supreme Court's decision to strike down racial segregation in schools in Brown v. Board of Education. A federal lawsuit seeking damages for violating the Fourteenth Amendment was filed on behalf of Ms. Flemming. The federal court in Columbia dismissed the case asserting that the Brown decision declaring the 'separate but equal' doctrine unconstitutional applied only to educational facilities.
Ms. Flemming's lawyers appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals fo the Fourth Circuit, where NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund lawyers led by Thurgood Marshall joined the case. The Fourth Circuit reversed the decision, ruling that the 'separate but equal' doctrine no longer applies to justify segregation on buses. The bus company appealed to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear the appeal in April 1956.
Ms. Flemming's case was tried in civil court before an all-male, all-white jury, which deliberated for only 30 minutes before denying her request for damages. Although Ms. Flemming did not receive any compensation, the Fourth Circuit's decision to decision in her case advanced the end of segregation, helping to lay the groundwork for the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Supreme Court's order ending racial segregation on Alabama buses in Gayle v Browder."