I didn’t know Mary Hamilton growing up. I came across her name a couple of years ago through my research and I didn’t want to forget her. Her story is too impactful to forget, for me, as a Black woman; and for the Black community.
Mary Hamilton was a civil rights activist who stood her ground on equal rights and was rewarded by the ‘Highest Law of the Land’. Her case came before the U.S. Supreme Court, Hamilton v. Alabama. The Court decided that an African-American woman was entitled to the same courteous forms of address customarily reserved solely to whites in the southern United States. It was also determined that calling a Black person by his or her first name in a legal proceeding was “a form of racial discrimination.”
“We’re finally fighting back!”M. Hamilton
Upon hearing about the development of the civil rights movement she recalled, “It’s happening! We’re finally fighting back!” “We’re gonna fight back, we’re not gonna take it anymore!”
Hamilton joined the civil rights movement as a Freedom Rider and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In the years that followed, Hamilton traveled all over the South, organizing for the civil rights movement, registering voters and rising up the ranks at CORE, becoming a field secretary and eventually Southern regional director – a rare level of authority for a woman.
She was arrested many times and each time, demanded that authorities address her as ‘Miss Hamilton’ instead of ‘Mary’.
“…And if you don’t know how to speak to a lady,
then get out of my cell!”Hamilton to Lebanon, TN Mayor
In 1963, Hamilton was arrested in Gadsden, Alabama for picketing and brought before the court for sentencing. Once again, officials refused to call her ‘Miss Hamilton’. She refused to answer their questions. The judge muttered lewd comments about what he’d like to do to her if she were in his kitchen and then ordered her to answer the prosecutor and apologize. She refused. She was fined and sentenced to a few days in jail for contempt of court. Her lawyers appealed the case, saying that the prosecutor and judge had denied Hamilton her constitutional rights by treating her differently from the way they treated white witnesses. Eventually her case landed before the Supreme Court in Hamilton v. Alabama. The justices issued a summary reversal, overruling the Alabama courts without even calling for oral arguments.
Barbara McCaskill, an English professor at the University of Georgia, studied the narratives of Black Americans and the civil rights movement. She said her own mother vividly remembered being denied the honorific “miss” as a young woman.
“Segregation was in the details as much as it was in the bold strokes,” McCaskill says. “Language is significant because language calls attention to whether or not we value the humanity of people that we are interacting with. And in segregation the idea was to remind African Americans and people of color in general, in every possible way, that we were not equal, that we were inferior, that we are not capable. And language becomes a very powerful force to do that.”
Sherrilyn Ifill is the president and director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represented Mary Hamilton in the Alabama Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court, “I’ve been thinking about Hamilton over the past few days as 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.
President Ronald Reagan popularized the myth of the “welfare queen”, shaping for decades the public’s response to the struggles of tens of thousands of poor, Black mothers. It was such an effective insult, implying both laziness and entitlement, that conservatives repurposed it for other uses, including calling civil rights lawyer Lani Guinier “quota queen” in an attempt to derail her 1993 confirmation as assistant attorney general for civil rights.
We betray our ideals when we allow the most powerful man in the world to unravel decades of progress that Black women have battled for in the public space. When the president chooses to call prominent Black women or journalists “stupid”, we Black women feel it.
Our laws help shape society. In order to create laws, such as non-discriminatory ones, people must stand their ground – like Mary Hamilton.
Ifill, Sherrilyn. “When Trump Attacks One Black woman, We All Feel It.” The Washington Post, 13 November 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/when-trump-attacks-one-black-woman-we-all-feel-it/2018/11/13/50d77c06-e756-11e8-b8dc-66cca409c180_story.html?noredirect=on. Accessed 2 December 2020.
NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “Mary Hamilton.” The Thurgood Marshall Institute, 2020, https://tminstituteldf.org/tmi-explains/thurgood-marshall-institute-briefs/tmi-briefs-active-voice/mary-hamilton/. Accessed 2 December 2020.
National Public Radio, and Camila Domonoske. “When ‘Miss’ Meant So Much More: How One Woman Fought Alabama – And Won.” Code Switch, 30 November 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/11/30/567177501/when-miss-meant-so-much-more-how-one-woman-fought-alabama-and-won. Accessed 2 December 2020.