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Protests and Demonstrations

Civil rights activists in South Carolina worked to desegregate public spaces. In 1954, Sarah Mae Flemming sued South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G), after she was forced from a Columbia bus owned by SCE&G. A few years later, the Freedom Riders — Black and White activists organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) — traveled through South Carolina on a campaign to challenge segregation on interstate bus systems.

Public transportation was not the only venue that activists targeted to end segregation. Activists challenged segregation in public spaces across South Carolina. In these challenges, often led by students, people confronted separate spaces through protests, marches, and sit-ins. These demonstrators faced violence and arrest, sometimes by the hundreds. Despite harassment and threats, protesters continued to fight for greater justice. 

Two men in suits and two women in dresses stand on courthouse steps.

1954

Sarah Mae Flemming and her friend Julia King stand on the steps of Columbia’s federal courthouse with attorneys Lincoln Jenkins and Matthew Perry.

(From left to right: Jenkins, Flemming, King, and Perry)

Courtesy of the South Caroliniana Library

Sarah Mae Flemming and the Columbia Buses

In 1954, a year before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, Sarah Mae Flemming was assaulted by a bus driver and forced off of a Columbia bus that was owned by SCE&G. Flemming sued SCE&G, and her case was cited in Browder v. Gayle, the lawsuit that ended the Montgomery bus boycott.
A woman speaking in front of a bus.

1954 While Sarah Mae Flemming lost her civil suit against the bus company, the U.S. Appellate Court ruled that the principles decided in the Brown v. Board decision applied to transportation, meaning bus segregation was unconstitutional.
Courtesy of the South Caroliniana Library

NAACP press release about the end of bus segregation, dated July 15, 1955.

July 15, 1955 The NAACP supported Flemming’s case against SCE&G. Activist Modjeska Monteith Simkins and attorneys Matthew Perry, Lincoln Jenkins, and Phillip Wittenberg helped her sue the company. The ruling in her case was later used as precedent to end the Montgomery bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks’ arrest.
Courtesy of South Carolina Political Collections

Sarah Mae Flemming

Civil rights activist

Sarah Mae Flemming

Civil rights activist

20-year-old Sarah Mae Flemming’s lawsuit against SCE&G set the legal foundation for the successful end of the Montgomery bus boycott.

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“Our ultimate choice is desegregation or disintegration.”

Thomas Gaither CORE Field Secretary, written from the York County Prison where Gaither was incarcerated as part of the Friendship Nine

Student Protest

Students of all ages led and participated in protests during the Civil Rights Movement. High school and college students were critical to civil rights activism, risking jail time and other consequences for their involvement.
Protesters march with signs saying

March 1960 After a sit-in at a local lunch counter, over 1,000 students from South Carolina State and Claflin universities marched in Orangeburg. After police used tear gas and fire hoses, they arrested more than 300 students and held them in an outdoor stockade in freezing weather.
Courtesy of Cecil Williams

March 15, 1960 Charles “Chuck” McDew leads protest march of activists, mostly students from Claflin and S. C. State.
Courtesy of Moving Image Research Collections

Protesters march single-file around the South Carolina State House.

March 2, 1961 Hundreds of students marched at the South Carolina State House to protest segregation. After singing hymns and The Star-Spangled Banner, they were arrested for breach of the peace.
Courtesy of Cecil Williams

March 2, 1961 Footage of the Edwards March
Courtesy of Moving Image Research Collections

March 1961 Nearly 200 students were arrested and convicted at a demonstration at the South Carolina State House. This protest led to the U.S. Supreme Court case, Edwards v. South Carolina.
Courtesy of Moving Image Research Collections

African American men and women exit a church.

1963 The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the convictions of the students in the Edwards March, and their case, Edwards v. South Carolina, has been used to protect the rights of protesters ever since. This photograph, taken by Cecil Williams at Zion Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., shows students celebrating the Supreme Court ruling in Edwards v. South Carolina in 1963.
Courtesy of the South Caroliniana Library

  • Sumter native James McCain served as Field Secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality and a key organizer of the Freedom Rides. He kept track of CORE activities, including the movements of the Freedom Riders in his datebooks. Here he records their travel through South Carolina. Courtesy of the South Caroliniana Library.
    Day planner from May 8-14, 1961 records the plans of the Freedom Riders.
  • The first Freedom Ride, an interracial group of 13 people, departed Washington, D.C., in May 1961. They undertook this task with no small amount of courage, facing harassment, arrest and violence, including when their bus was firebombed in Alabama. The first instance of violence they saw was in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when Freedom Riders, including Congressman John Lewis, were beaten.
    An interracial group of people outside of a greyhound bus with smoke pouring out.

Boycotts and Sit-ins

Across the United States, protests erupted as African Americans and allies fought for equality and an end to segregation. In South Carolina, people from the Lowcountry to the Upstate used marches, sit-ins, boycotts, and other strategies to challenge segregation.

In 1960, the “Greenville Eight”—Jesse Jackson, Dorris Wright, Hattie Smith Wright, Elaine Means, Willie Joe Wright, Benjamin Downs, Margaree Seawright Crosby, and Joan Mattison Daniel—held a sit-in at the Greenville Public Library to demand integration.
Courtesy of Dorris Wright

CORE-Lator newsletter clipping of eight young men in a jail cell.

January 31, 1961 Ten students at Friendship Junior College were arrested after a sit-in at a segregated McCrory’s lunch counter in Rock Hill. The following day, they were convicted of trespassing and nine of them refused bail. Called the Friendship Nine, their decision sparked the “Jail, No Bail” strategy in which demonstrators decided to remain in jail rather than be bailed out to draw greater attention to the movement and, in some places, fill jails.
Courtesy of South Caroliniana Library

Typed letter to Matthew J. Perry, June 16, 1961.

June 16, 1961 White state leaders sometimes chose to close spaces rather than open them up to Black visitors. After being denied entry to South Carolina’s Sesquicentennial State Park, a group of African Americans wrote to Matthew Perry asking him to represent them in a lawsuit to desegregate South Carolina’s state Parks.
Courtesy of South Carolina Political Collections

A man with protest signs on a sidewalk with storefronts in the background.

Among the protesters was George Hamilton, who would later lead the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission. Here, he walks down Columbia’s Main Street.
Courtesy of South Caroliniana Library

Two protesters carrying signs walk down a busy Main Street sidewalk.

Many people participated in protests for civil rights, including on Main Street in Columbia, S.C.
Courtesy of South Caroliniana Library

January 1, 1960 Civil rights demonstrators protest Greenville Downtown Airport after Jackie Robinson was denied service.
Courtesy of Moving Image Research Collections

April 1963 Students from Allen University and Benedict College, HBCUs in Columbia, S.C., greet Robert F. Kennedy as he arrives at the Columbia Airport with signs to protesting discrimination and segregation, including one reading “let there be justice for all.”
Courtesy of Moving Image Research Collections

March 2, 1960 Students from Allen University and Benedict College stage a sit-in at Woolworth’s on Main Street in Columbia, S.C.
Courtesy of Moving Image Research Collections

Annie Hackett Ritter

Student and civil rights activist

Annie Hackett Ritter

Student and civil rights activist

Annie Hackett Ritter, of Spartanburg, joined the African American student protest sit-in movement that swept across southern cities in the 1960s, including in Columbia.

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Retaliation

Despite retaliation ranging from verbal harassment to violent physical assault to arrests, civil rights protesters bravely persisted.

1960 A group of counter-protesters in Rock Hill, S.C. hold Confederate flags and eggs to throw at demonstrators.
Courtesy of Moving Image Research Collections

Lennie Glover

Student and civil rights activist

Lennie Glover

Student and civil rights activist

Lennie Glover, a student at Benedict College, was stabbed during a sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter on March 5, 1961. After recovering, he returned to Main Street, carrying a new protest sign.

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March 14, 1960 Talmadge Neal and Simon Bouie are arrested for asking for service at the lunch counter of Eckerd Drug Store.
Courtesy of Moving Image Research Collections

Profiles in Activism: Protests and Demonstrations

Learn more about some of the protesters who stood up for their rights.
Thomas Gaither wears a tie that says

Thomas Gaither

Civil rights activist

Thomas Gaither

Civil rights activist

“Our ultimate choice is desegregation or disintegration.”

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Gloria Blackwell Rackley

Teacher and civil rights activist

Gloria Blackwell Rackley

Teacher and civil rights activist

In 1961, Gloria Rackley filed a lawsuit against Orangeburg Regional Hospital, resulting in its eventual desegregation. In 1963, she joined hundreds of students protesting segregation in Orangeburg.

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James T. McCain

Teacher and civil rights organizer

James T. McCain

Teacher and civil rights organizer

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Isaiah DeQuincey Newman

Pastor, politician and civil rights activist

Isaiah DeQuincey Newman

Pastor, politician and civil rights activist

Isaiah DeQuincey Newman helped organize the Orangeburg branch of the NAACP, led the NAACP in South Carolina, and later became the first African American since 1887 to serve in the S.C. Senate.

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Cecil Williams

Photographer and photojournalist

Cecil Williams

Photographer and photojournalist

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Friendship Nine

Civil rights and student activists

Friendship Nine

Civil rights and student activists

On January 31, 1961, Black students from Friendship Junior College sat-in at McCrory’s Variety Store in Rock Hill, S.C. After being arrested, nine refused bail, sparking the “Jail, No Bail” strategy.

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South Carolina HBCU Students

Civil rights and student activists

South Carolina HBCU Students

Civil rights and student activists

Students from South Carolina’s HBCUs played crucial roles the state’s Civil Rights Movement, sitting in at segregated lunch counters and marching in mass protests.

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