One of the podcast I listen to, as I am on the treadmill, is Code Switch, one of the NPR podcast that features discussions on race and politics. Last March I listened to a podcast titled Throw Some Respect on My Name. The subject was about a civil rights organizer named Mary Hamilton.
Mary Hamilton was a civil rights pioneer that people should know about, but is lost among the iconic figures, mostly male, who dominate the history for civil rights. But her insistence on being addressed as “Miss Hamilton” while being arraigned for disturbing the piece during her work as a civil rights activist, led to a 1964 Supreme Court decision Hamilton v Alabama in her favor.
Hamilton was born in 1935 in a family whose light complexion allowed them to pass as white. Mary rejected this practice and instead became an active participant as a field organizer for the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE). CORE organized the first “Freedom Rides” in the 1940s to integrate interstate bus transportation. Suffering beatings and the threat of rape at the hands of southern whites, Hamilton became known within the civil rights community as a fierce advocate for civil rights for people of color and women.
During this period social etiquette demanded that white citizens be addressed with the honorifics Mr., Mrs., or Miss. Black people were not afforded that respect. In 1963 Hamilton was arrested and during arraignment the attorney for the state of Alabama asks “Mary, what are you here for?” Hamilton responded, “I will not answer you until you call me Miss Hamilton.” She was fined $50 and sentenced to 10 days in jail for contempt. She refused to pay the $50 dollars and served her time in jail. Hamilton received the legal assistance from the NAACP and filed a lawsuit against the state of Alabama. Loosing in the state courts, the case was taken to the United States Supreme Court that ruled in her favor in 1964. The court stated that refusing to use the honorific Miss was a remnant of a racial caste system that violated Hamilton’s equal protection guarantees.
Mary Hamilton went on to become a union organizer and teacher before her death in 2002. You can listen to her testimony of her experiences on the NPR podcast Code Switch recorded February 21, 2018 titled “Throw Some Respect on My Name.”