The quietly defiant, unlikely fighter: Pfc. Sarah Keys and the fight for justice and humanity

By T. Anthony BellFebruary 25, 2014

Pfc. Sarah Louise Keys
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Pfc. Sarah Louise Keys, who underwent basic training at Fort Lee, was the subject of a legal battle after refusing to give up her seat to a white on an interstate bus in 1952, three years before Rosa Parks did the same. Her case was eventually heard ... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Sarah Louise Keys Evans
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT LEE, Va. (Feb. 20, 2014) -- The modern civil rights movement was much broader than the contributions made by the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the NAACP or Rosa Parks in changing America's unjust racial climate.

It was more about the thousands of unheralded, everyday citizens whose brave actions and collective voices blended together to create rumbles that shook the country's consciousness, giving rise to individuals and organizations that would lead the struggle.

Pfc. Sarah Louise Keys was one such citizen. A native of segregated Washington, N.C., Keys was raised in the world of Jim Crow (a system of lawful segregation), but her refusal to give up her seat to a white on an interstate bus in 1952 thrust the Soldier into a legal battle to defend her humanity while building the stage for Parks' protest three years later that would elevate King to movement front man.

Now 85-years-old and living in Brooklyn, N.Y., Keys Evans (her married name) said her thoughts about the incident have not changed. She seemed as defiant as she was 62 years ago when she wore a Women's Army Corps uniform and sat in what she thought was her rightful seat, but one the bus driver contended it was not and consequently had her arrested.

"I knew I had been unjustly accused of disorderly conduct," she said by telephone. "I was willing to prove that I wasn't disorderly. There was nothing disorderly going on that night."

Keys Evan's unintentional confrontation with the law came just after midnight on Aug. 1, 1952 as she traveled from Fort Dix, N.J., to her family's home in Washington, a small town in the northeastern North Carolina. In those days, interstate bus travel for African-Americans was a bit complicated. A 1946 Supreme Court decision said it was illegal to practice passenger segregation on interstate buses, but local jurisdictions found ways to circumvent federal laws.

Furthermore, buses originating in the North and traveling to Southern destinations without changing were not subject to local laws. Keys Evans said she understood the latter because the bus in which she traveled originated in Washington, D.C. (she had transferred to it from another bus).

"My father said when you purchased a ticket, make sure the bus goes straight through; one with no stops (changes)," said Keys Evans, who completed integrated basic training at Fort Lee. "In other words, you wouldn't be hassled by the driver."

The bus, however, did make a stop to change drivers, and the new driver demanded Keys Evans relinquish her seat to a Marine. It was after midnight, the bus was filled with passengers and Keys Evans had been riding for hours. To say the least, she lacked the motivation to play the part of an inferior.

"I didn't set out to do what I did, it just happened," she recalled. "I wasn't going to get up and walk through a crowd to stand… I was tired. It was around midnight, and you're just anxious to get to where you were supposed to be."

Dr. Emeka Anaedozie, an assistant professor of history at Virginia State University, said the Keys Evans incident illustrates the broader spectrum of the civil rights movement. Sure, there were big personalities and brave actions, but they tended to eclipse what African-Americans by the hundreds of thousands endured and triumphed over in their day-to-day lives.

"Sometimes when we discuss the civil rights movement, we discuss it from an elitist's point of view," he said. "We forget that it was not the leaders but ordinary citizens who were assaulted, discriminated against or jailed. Occasionally that paradigm has been jettisoned in American history. Increasingly, it has dominated our discussion on civil rights and discourse."

To be clear, Keys Evans was not an agitator or a provoker and surely not an activist. She was a "country girl" who understood where she stood in her black skin.

"My parents raised us well and raised us with discipline," she said. "I went to Catholic school. We knew what our parents expected of us. Out in public, we knew our place. I used to hate to go to the movies because you had to go to the balcony; round the side up to the balcony. Whites and blacks were friendly in that town. Whites knew their place and blacks knew theirs."

It didn't mean, however, that they were passive, dismissive or lacked the capacity to challenge. "I believe in people being treated right and treated fairly no matter what the situation," said Keys Evans who was 23 years old at the time of the incident.

Keys Evans paid for her faith in that principle. After she was arrested, she spent 13 hours in a cell alone, pacing and crying, not knowing what was going to happen. Surely, she had known about the many blacks who had been killed while in police custody and the violence directed against black Soldiers during and after World War II, so vile it moved President Harry Truman to integrate the services.

"Of course I was very fearful," she said, acknowledging what she was up against. "Fear is one of the things that said, 'Just don't say too much. Just keep moving along with the policeman here.'"

Keys Evans was eventually ordered to pay a $25 fine for disorderly conduct, was released and put on a bus to her hometown. During her stay in Washington, her father initiated steps to fight her case with the help of attorney Dovey Johnson Roundtree and her partner, Julius Winfield Robertson. It was brought before the Interstate Commerce Commission and simply contended that the federal statues prohibited segregation.

The case held a special significance for Roundtree, a former Women's Army Auxiliary Corps Soldier. She was part of the first group of blacks to serve in the WAAC, and as such, was familiar with interstate travel, especially in the South, where she had been a victim of discrimination as well.

In addition, Keys Evans had the full support of her father, a Navy veteran and former steward who was instrumental in bringing the first Catholic school to the Washington area. Mr. Keys was quite familiar with 1946's Morgan vs. Commonwealth of Virginia Supreme Court case, said Keys Evans, and often discussed interstate bus travel case with his children. Keys Evans said his support was vital to her participation in the case.

"'I will see you through as far as you want to go,'" she said her father told her during the preliminary stages of the case.

The Sarah Keys vs. Carolina Coach Company case was not settled until 1955. Keys Evans was now out of the military and married to George Evans. On Nov. 25, the ICC favored Keys Evans, ruling the Interstate Commerce Act forbids segregation. The timing of the case was important as it came on the heels of 1954's Brown vs. Board of Education case that also outlawed segregation in schools.

Keys Evans, working as a beauty salon at the time in Harlem, received the news from Roundtree over the phone. She said only a coworker knew about her case as she preferred to keep quiet about it due to the subject's sensitivity. Notifying her salon bosses of who she was after the ruling, she was shortly inundated by media. Keys Evans said the ruling and what it meant grew on her shortly after reporters began their interviews.

"They wanted to know how I felt about the ruling, and I hadn't read the paper and I was running late," she recalled. "My first comment I made to them was that 'I feel free at long last.' It was printed all over the country."

Keys Evans wasn't totally at ease with her new-found status and the publicity surrounding it. She rode the train home reading about her case in the evening papers, using the broadsheets to shield her face.

Seven days later, Parks' face was featured in newspapers and on news shows all over the country. Her act of defiance was not much different than that of Morgan, Keys Evans or others. Parks' stand, however, did give rise to a young charismatic clergyman from Atlanta who pushed the movement to its highest peaks.

In retrospect, Keys Evans was a law-abiding, civil and ambitious young woman who was looking to find her American dream ... someone who certainly was not looking for trouble. As history would have it, though, it found her and rather than wilt in the face of confrontation, she did like many before her: she rose, stood and fought with pride and grace. Most importantly, she said she fought with the resolve that "America had the willingness to change itself."