This Day In History: September 1st
A few years before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus, Sarah Keys made history as the first Black petitioner to bring a complaint before the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) on an issue pertaining to transportation. Like Parks, Sarah Keys refused to move from her seat on a public bus rather than appease white passengers and move to a seat in the back.
On Sept. 1, 1953, Keys challenged the concept of “separate but equal” before the Interstate Commerce Commission. A year before, on Aug. 1, 1952, Keys set out on a trip back home to North Carolina to see her family. Keys was a private in the Women’s Army Corps and was eligible for leave. She boarded the bus in New Jersey and had plans to travel straight through to North Carolina.
However, upon boarding the bus, Keys decided to sit in the middle of the bus instead of subjecting herself to the heat and other unpleasant aspects of riding in the back. Her seat selection caused white passengers to fret and angered the bus driver.
After repeated attempts to make her move, the bus driver announced that all passengers would be switching vehicles to continue the trip except for Keys. Keys was taken off of the bus by two police officers and brought to the police station.
Once Keys was released, she told her story of injustice to her parents and they encouraged her to take legal action against the bus company. With the help of the NAACP, the Keys family was introduced to attorney Dovey Johnson Roundtree. Roundtree served in World War II and was also a member of the Women’s Army Corps.
The attorney, along with her law partner Julius Winfield Robertson, accepted the case and filed a historic complaint with the Interstate Commerce Commission. The case of Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company was not resolved quickly. Her lawyers had to battle rejection for more than a year before the case was finally settled.
Sarah Keys successfully took action against segregation and Jim Crow tactics with the ICC’s groundbreaking decision. In 1955, the ICC ruled in favor of Keys. The segregation policy enforced by the bus company violated the Interstate Commerce Act and was ultimately unlawful.