Before Rosa Parks, Sarah Keys refused to back down.
Before Rosa Parks made history by refusing to give up her bus seat, Sarah Keys did the same.
On August 1, 1952, the young Army private traveling to Washington, North Carolina, refused to give up her seat on an interstate bus for a white Marine.
Sarah Keys decided to stay seated to defend her right to sit where she wanted. So the bus company decided to punish and scare her. They made her sit on the bus by herself while all the other passengers got on a different bus. Then the police arrested her and falsely accused her of disorderly conduct. She spent several hours in jail because she did not have enough money to pay the $25 fine. Eventually, she was released and put on a bus to Washington, North Carolina. She was alone and scared but carried herself with strength and dignity.
Her father persuaded her to fight the disorderly conduct charge. She initially lost her case in court and was convicted of disorderly conduct. Then she received help from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP connected her with a civil rights lawyer from Charlotte named Dovey Johnson Roundtree.
Roundtree and her law partner fought Keys’ case for three years, and they won. Their complaint against the bus company was filed with the Interstate Commerce Commission. The decision in the case called Keys vs. Carolina Coach Company came in November of 1955. The court ruled that the bus company had violated federal law. They said that buses that travel across state lines could not discriminate based on race. A few weeks after Sarah Keys won her case, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
Nearly seven decades after two Black Army women helped end discrimination on interstate buses, North Carolina recognized their nearly-forgotten civil rights case last year.
Keys story is an example of strength and courage during a time riddled with unjust discrimination, and unreasonable prejudice. Her actions, along with others, opened up interstate travel from the north for Black people and helped set the stage for the civil rights movement in the 1950s.
Read more about her story here.