Remembering Sarah Keys

On November 7, 1955—57 years ago today—the Interstate Commerce Commission in Keys v. Carolina Coach Company ruled segregation on interstate buses a violation of the Interstate Commerce Act.

The previous 59 years, following the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision, had been characterized by legally sanctioned segregation in public transportation. Although the Supreme Court in Morgan v. Virginia (1946) had voided a Virginia law requiring segregation on public transportation, such discrimination continued across the South, perpetuated by policies from the transportation companies themselves.

Keys v. Carolina Coach Company was rooted in an arrest three years earlier. While on leave, Women’s Army Corps Private Sarah Keys, who was traveling from New Jersey to North Carolina, refused to give her seat to a white Marine. She was arrested, jailed overnight, fined $25, and convicted of disorderly conduct.

Represented by attorneys Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Julius Robertson, Keys mounted a legal battle against racial discrimination. After at U.S. District Court refused on jurisdictional grounds to hear the case, Keys filed suit with the Interstate Commerce Commission. Her attorneys used the Interstate Commerce Act and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling to argue that “segregation per se in fields affected with a public interest subjects the person segregated to an unreasonable and constitutionally forbidden discrimination.”

Extending the logic of Brown v. Board of Education’s condemnation of “separate but equal” to the area of bus travel across state lines, the eleven commissioners condemned “separate but equal,” stating that the Interstate Commerce Act prohibited such segregation. They wrote:

We conclude that the assignment of seats in intestate buses, so designated as to imply the inherent inferiority of a traveler solely because of race or color, must be regarded as subjecting the traveler to unjust discrimination, and undue and unreasonable prejudice and disadvantage. In addition to the discrimination, prejudice and disadvantage resulting from the mere fact of segregation, additional disadvantage to the passenger is always potentially present because the traveler is entitled to be free from the annoyances which inevitably accompany segregation and the variety and unevenness of the methods of its enforcement.

Unfortunately, it would be six years before the integration promised by the Keys decision would come to fruition, as the Interstate Commerce Commission failed to enforce its own ruling. That said, Keys v. Carolina Coach Company and its companion case, NAACP v. St. Louis-San Francisco Railway Company, foreshadowed significant progress to come—and Sarah Keys’ unending fight inspired future work by individuals like Rosa Parks (who soon would soon after refuse to give up her seat) and groups like the Freedom Riders. In 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission would finish the job, at Robert Kennedy’s insistence, by ordering an end to segregation on interstate transportation and within transportation facilities.

To learn more, check out this article from the Washington Daily News, this tribute by Representative Edolphus Towns, and this page from Wikipedia.

To learn more about Roundtree, and to read her summary of the Keys case, check out her autobiography: Justice Older than the Law: The Life of Dovey Johnson Roundtree (University Press of Mississippi 2009).

To learn more about Keys and Roundtree, check out this summary, and this summary, both from the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation’s web site.

To learn more about protests against transportation discrimination, check out Blair Kelley’s Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson (UNC Press, 2010).

To learn more about the 1961 Interstate Commerce Commission ruling, check out this page from the Federal Highway Administration. To read the regulations, click here.

To read about the Freedom Rides, check out this blog post and also Raymond Arsenault’s Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Oxford University Press 2007).  A documentary film on the freedom riders is available via PBS.