By Spy Uganda
On June 25, 1963, 28-year-old civil rights activist Mary Hamilton was arrested for nonviolent protest. While cross-examining Hamilton during her trial in the Etowah County Courthouse in Gadsden, Ala. — where the KKK was highly active — the prosecutor repeatedly addressed her as “Mary”.
Many White people particularly officials in the American South at the time refused to use honorifics like “Miss,” “Mrs.” or “Mr.” to refer to Black people. They did this just to demean and disrespect Blacks. When the prosecutor refused to use the word “Miss” when addressing Hamilton, she refused to answer the prosecutor’s questions.
“I won’t respond until you call me ‘Miss’ Hamilton,” she said.
Being called “Miss” was not just about an honorific for Hamilton. It was all about equality and respect. Growing up in Iowa and Colorado, Hamilton, a light-skinned woman, could pass as white just like some of her relatives but she identified very strongly as Black. She would have probably become a nun had she not learned about the activities of civil rights groups in the South.
She joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which was a major civil rights organization at the time, and became a Freedom Rider, fighting against racial injustice. In the 1960s, she traveled all over the South, organizing for the civil rights movement and registering voters. She eventually became a field secretary and then Southern regional director of CORE, which was rare for a woman at the time.
For her activism, she was repeatedly arrested and beaten. She insisted that court officials, jailers, and elected officials refer to her as Miss Hamilton besides fighting off harassment from some of them. After one of her arrests in Lebanon, Tennessee, a mayor visited her cell and referred to her as “Mary”. Hamilton demanded the respect of being addressed as Miss Hamilton. “And if you don’t know how to speak to a lady,” Hamilton recalled telling the mayor, “then get out of my cell.”
Amid segregation, calling Black people by their first name was to basically remind them that they were inferior and not equal. Hamilton decided to change the status quo. Even though historians say her resistance was nonviolent, her fellow activists said she was generally “the worst-tempered woman in the Nonviolent Movement.”
In June 1963 when she was arrested during civil rights protests and brought before the court for sentencing, she stood up to the prosecutor’s disrespect by stubbornly refusing to respond to her first name. The prosecutor had addressed her by her first name only, after addressing earlier White witnesses as “Miss,” so Hamilton refused to answer and Judge A.B. Cunningham held her in contempt.
‘Q What is your name, please?
‘A Miss Mary Hamilton.
‘Q Mary, I believe—you were arrested—who were you arrested by?
‘A My name is Miss Hamilton. Please address me correctly.
‘Q Who were you arrested by, Mary?
‘A I will not answer a question——
‘BY ATTORNEY AMAKER: The witness’s name is Miss Hamilton.
‘A —your question until I am addressed correctly.
‘THE COURT: Answer the question.
‘THE WITNESS: I will not answer them unless I am addressed correctly.
‘THE COURT: You are in contempt of court——
‘ATTORNEY CONLEY: Your Honor—your Honor——
‘THE COURT: You are in contempt of this court, and you are sentenced to five days in jail and a fifty dollar fine.’
Hamilton served jail time but refused to pay the fine. She was allowed out on bond to appeal the conviction but the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the conviction unanimously.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court in Hamilton v. Alabama.
“Petitioner’s reaction to being called ‘Mary’ in a court room where, if white, she would be called ‘Miss Hamilton,’ was not thin-skinned sensitivity,” the LDF lawyers argued in their written filings. “She was responding to one of the most distinct indicia of the racial caste system. This is the refusal of whites to address Negroes with titles of respect.”
The Supreme Court, without even hearing oral argument, and without handing down a written opinion, summarily reversed the contempt conviction in March 1964. They ruled that a court could not address Black witnesses differently than white ones.
“A desegregation decision, basically,” historian Colin Morris said. “And that case, that precedent, stands — and is the law of the land up to the present day.”
In other words, her case reaching the Supreme Court set a precedent for how witnesses are addressed in courtrooms today.
In 1964, Hamilton had fought for her rights and won. Her story made headlines across the country, but she was now exhausted and her health was failing thanks to all the beatings she endured during her activism years. She became a union organizer and teacher, and gradually, she was forgotten. At the time of her death in 2002, not many knew about her or her story.
To her fellow activist and former roommate Sheila Michaels, she was a “hero”.
“For if ever there was a steed aptly named to carry an hero into battle, it was Mary’s Valiant. And she was our hero, cast in the heroic mold,” Michaels said after her death