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“A Definite and Imperative Need for Legislation Against Discrimination”

The first laws passed in the South to impose statewide segregation in public facilities, instituted in the 1880s and 1890s, applied to railroad car seating. During this period, railway lines spread rapidly from cities to rural communities. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court validated these early “Jim Crow” laws when it ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that a Louisiana statute requiring “separate but equal” accommodations for white and black railroad passengers did not conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment clause guaranteeing all citizens equal protection of the laws. (Jim Crow, the colloquial term for segregation, referred to a blackface character popular on the minstrel stage.) Jim Crow legislation extended throughout the South to schools, hotels, restaurants, streetcars, buses, theaters, hospitals, parks, courthouses, and even cemeteries. Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1946 that a Virginia statute requiring segregated seating interfered with interstate commerce and was thus invalid, Jim Crow travel laws remained in effect in the South. In the follow 1954 testimony to a House committee hearing on proposed legislation to end segregated travel, an attorney for the National Council of Negro Women argued that discriminatory practices were contrary to foundational American principles and recounted the humiliating arrest of a member of the WACS for disobeying a bus driver’s order to move from her seat. The bills under consideration never made it to the House floor for a vote. In 1956, following a boycott by the black community of Montgomery, Alabama, against the city’s segregated bus system, the Supreme Court ruled segregation on buses unconstitutional.


The National Council of Negro Women is a coordinating, planning body, founded and organized in 1935 by Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, together with a group of outstanding women leaders. Its purpose is to meet the need for united planning and concerted action for the economic, social, educational, and cultural welfare of Negro women in the United States. . . .

The members of the National Council of Negro Women feel that the practice of discrimination in interstate travel is in direct conflict with our basic concept of democracy upon which the United States is founded. The practice of discrimination in this field, as well as others, is degrading, humiliating, completely unfounded, and amounts to a deprivation of an inherent right—the right of ingress and egress to all points within the United States on the same basis as all other citizens.

In the normal course of living, people of every race in the United States have need to travel. As an American citizen, it is imperative that one should be as secure in his person as he travels, as he is from illegal search and seizure in his home by virtue of the fourth and fifth amendments of our Constitution. Negroes in some sections of the country, regardless of the accommodations purchased, may be subjected to embarrassment and even violence if they insist upon retaining these accommodations. This should not be in a democracy such as ours. . . .

The members of this organization wish to call the committee’s attention to a case which was heard before the Interstate Commerce Commission 2 days ago, that is, May 12, 1954. The issue in the case before the Commission deals with discrimination in interstate travel.

The case to which we refer is that of Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company (No. MCC-1564). Sarah Keys, a Negro woman, while a member of the Women’s Army Corps, and wearing the uniform of the United States Army, left Fort Dix, N. J., en route to Washington, N. C., her home. She was seated in the fifth seat from the front of the bus from the District of Columbia to Richmond, Va., and then to Roanoke Rapids, N. C. There the bus driver in forceful language and in an intimidating manner, demanded that she move to the rear of the bus. This Sarah Keys refused to do, acting upon her firm and well-founded belief that she had a right to remain in the seat of her choice for the remainder of the trip. As a result of her refusal to retreat, this young woman was evicted from the bus.

Events ensued which resulted in her being arrested and held incommunicado for some 12 hours. All of this, gentlemen, while wearing the uniform of the United States Army. There should be no cases such as that of Sarah Keys and many others which time will not permit us to cite.

Instances such as the one just cited and the many others which have been brought to our attention by our own members and associations compel the National Council of Negro Women to urge you to support and to enact legislation such as is embodied in bills 563, 8160, 7304, and the several similar bills which have been introduced by honorable Members of the House. There is a definite and imperative need for legislation against discrimination in interstate travel. This legislation, we believe, should extend to every facility in every railroad station, airport, bus, dock, and ferry.

The National Council of Negro Women is an ardent supporter of this enabling legislation. The whole pattern of segregation and discrimination in the United States weakens dangerously the fabric of our democracy. We cannot afford, therefore, to temporize or delay the passage of this needed legislation, for to do so continues to endanger the foundations of our national life. Thank you.

Source: Amending Interstate Commerce Act (Segregation of Passengers), Hearings before the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, House of Representatives, 83rd Congress, 2nd Session, May 12–14, 1954. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1954.