Mary Hamilton was a civil rights activist and Freedom Rider who worked with CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) as one of only two female field secretaries for the organization and the first sent to organize in the South. Prior to taking her post, it was believed that men were best suited for organizing on the ground.1 Ms. Hamilton would prove herself to be a remarkably effective community organizer, well-known throughout the movement for riding into small rural towns in the South and organizing non-violent protests from the ground up.2
Ms. Hamilton was arrested multiple times for her organization of and participation in non-violent protests. However, her court appearance in 1963 would lead to a groundbreaking victory for African Americans within the routine nomenclature and decorum of legal proceedings at that time.
As Mary Hamilton was testifying as a witness in a case in Alabama, the prosecutor referred to Ms. Hamilton only by her first name as was the custom when addressing African Americans in a courtroom.
The honorifics of Mr., Miss, or Mrs. were reserved only for whites. Similar to using the terms “boy” or “girl” to refer to Black men and women during this era, the refusal to grant African Americans the recognition of being addressed as a gentleman or lady was a minor yet incredibly transparent device used to infuse even the shortest verbal interactions with a painful reminder that they were not equal to whites, inside or outside of the courtroom.
Recognizing this, Ms. Hamilton refused to respond to the prosecutor stating that she would answer only when addressed respectfully. The judge found her in contempt of court, fined her $50, and sentenced her to five days in jail. See the court transcript depicting the interaction below…
“Mary, and a couple of women were arrested for picketing the movie theater which forced people of color to sit in the balcony. The Mayor came to gloat. Mary said he was a sweaty little man. ‘Well Mary and Rose and Brenda, how do you feel about what you got yourself into, NOW?’
Mary said (hand on hip), ‘Our names are MISS Hamilton, MRS. Tompkins and MRS. Jenkins. And if you don’t know how to talk to a lady, then get out of my cell! AND, this place is FILTHY, and I want it cleaned up, NOW.’ The Mayor backed out of the cell and soon, someone came to clean the place.”3
Represented by LDF attorneys, Ms. Hamilton’s case would go all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor, in the 1964 landmark decision, Ex parte Mary Hamilton. Ala. Sup. Ct., 7 Div. 621. The decision established that people of color are entitled to the same courtesies and honorifics as whites. See below how LDF summarized the event in April of 1964…
While this story may not be well-known today, Ms. Hamilton’s victory made headlines around the country at the time and immediately made her one of the civil rights heroes of the era. Ms. Hamilton was featured on the cover of JET Magazine and an article in the New York Times about her Supreme Court victory.
Ms. Hamilton’s case was remembered as a watershed moment for many who were involved including former board member and philanthropist William Schiede, who often referred to it as one of his favorite cases.4 Even now the impact of the case is still felt. In a recent New York Times op-ed, current LDF Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill regarded Ms. Hamilton’s stand as “a brave and important one”5 that has clear connections to the struggles society still faces today in terms of civil rights and women’s rights more specifically.
“I’ve watched President Trump attack black female journalists. Trump’s vicious and public insults of black female professionals should remind us that black women have long had to fight for respect and dignity and against demeaning and ugly stereotypes in the public space. As Hamilton demonstrated, this was a signature struggle of the civil rights movement; we need to keep that context in mind when Trump demeans black women he regards as his opponents.”
Mary Hamilton dedicated a good portion of her life to organizing and advocating for civil rights. Her arrest, trial and subsequent victory in the Supreme Court happened toward the end of her active role with CORE and the civil rights movement. She would later return to her calling as an educator, earning a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) from Manhattanville College in 1971 and teaching until her retirement in 1990. During this time, she was also an organizer for 1199, the Drug & Hospital Workers Union. In 2002, Ms. Hamilton passed away after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.6
HEAR HER VOICE
Hear Mary Hamilton and her friend and fellow activist Sheila Michaels discuss her Supreme Court case and their time spent in the civil rights movement on NPR ‘s “Code Switch” podcast.