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Commemorating the civil rights movement of 1963

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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) -

Memphis, Jackson, Selma, Birmingham, Washington, D.C. and Columbia are taking part in a special year-long celebration to commemorate the 50th anniversary of 1963.

It's a year that forever changed the quest for civil rights in our country. Now Columbia's contribution to the movement is being shared.

The bombings, fire hoses,and attack dogs are images we associate with the civil rights movement. The struggle was undeniably real and so was the city of Columbia's part in the movement.

"I know that everything today and everything that we are as a community we hold to the men and women with extraordinary faith and courage that marched they fought," said Mayor Steve Benjamin. "They died for us to have a chance to inherit a world better than the one in which they knew."

It's been 50 years since the landmark year of 1963 and now six southern cities, including Columbia, are coming together to remember the movement, the terror, and the determination that marked day to day life in south.

"The people of the city of Columbia have been in the forefront of leadership in the civil right movement for as long as I can remember," said Judge Ernest Finney, Jr., former Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court.

Little girls lives weren't being taken in a church,  like in Birmingham, and folks weren't being sprayed with tear gas, like we saw in Selma on "Bloody Sunday." Still, while less dramatic, events central to the movement did occur in Columbia. 

For example, historian Dr. Bobby Donaldson notes three major legal precedents set here that advanced the cause. The first, involving George Elmore in the 1940s, resulted in the landmark case, Elmore v. Rice.

"Which brought down all the white Democratic party here in Columbia," said Donaldson.

And before there was Rosa Parks, a woman named Sara Mae Fleming bravely resisted segregation on a city bus in Columbia.

"The story goes that Ms. Fleming, as the bus filled up, was suppose to move further back and she refused to do so," said Donaldson.

"And during the course of this encounter [the] bus driver asked for her to leave and she did so. and as she tries to leave through the front door she was punched and then we understand that Ms. Fleming rather than sort of letting this be, decided enough was enough and she ultimately found her way to Modjeska Monteith Simkins."

Ultimately, the incident made its way to court, where an influential figure in the NAACP, legendary civil rights attorney Matthew Perry, would represent Mrs. Fleming.

"It was a pivotal case but she really moves towards her obscurity," said Donaldson. "Her contribution and heroic stance in 1954 has been long forgotten."

And another case, perhaps Perry's most significant, Edwards v. South Carolina went to the  United States Supreme Court, where justices ruled that a group of student protesters were permitted by the 14th Amendment to peacefully demonstrate unpopular views against segregation.

"Just that sheer determination, and the steps they took, I find awe inspiring," said Donaldson.  "And the same time I'm mindful about what they were fighting against and the more we do our research the more we are reminded what we now have in the 21st century was not certain.  It was not even so predictable at the time.  What we have today is really a consequence of [what] occurred a generation ago."

Columbia's role in the civil rights movement been overlooked but our story matters. Activities will be taking place through the year for the 1963 project.

One is Sunday at the  Nickelodeon Theatre where a documentary about the life and times of Harvey Gantt will be shown. Gantt was the  first black student to be admitted to Clemson University and was represented by then attorney Matthew Perry. It's free of charge and starts at 3 p.m.

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