Herstory: The Lost "Miss Mary Case"

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Miss Mary Hamilton, a Freedom Rider, has a story that is important in the progression of black women but that story is rarely told. As a civil rights activist, she challenged the way women, specifically black women, were addressed in court. Hamilton fought for her right to be addressed as “Miss” in court against the state of Alabama and won. Today, African American women can be referred to as Miss, which is an honorific for single women.


“If you don’t know how to speak to a lady,” Hamilton told a mayor in Tennessee in a recording provided by NPR’s Code Switch, “then get out of my jail cell.”


In the early and mid 1900s, in the South, white people, especially those in positions of power, did not use any type of honorifics in reference to black people. White people often referred to black people of any age as “boy” or “girl” and if they were to call them by their name, they did not put any honorific in front of it.  Black people were just called by their name, such as “Mary Hamilton,” no matter how formal the setting. Which proves how racism and segregation were constantly expressed through the small details, used to remind black people in every way that they were inferior.

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Hamilton was a black woman who refused to pass as white, unlike a lot of her white-passing family members, to benefit from the respect and privileges that white woman got during the 40s and 50s. Her daughter, Holly Wesley, explained how her mother was disgusted by people that would pass because it meant denying a part of who they were.


She left her job as a teacher as soon as she heard about the civil rights work being done in the South. She joined the Congress of Racial Equality or CORE. Due to nonviolent protests by this group, Hamilton was jailed and found herself in positions where jail officials claimed the need for vaginal and anal examinations and because she refused to comply, she was beaten.

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Protesting in Gadsden, Alabama in 1963, Hamilton was arrested and disrespected by authorities which lead to the act of defiance that set a precedent for how women are addressed today.


Wesley explained, to NPR’s Camila Domonoske, her mother’s experience in front of the judge in court. A prosecutor asked Miss Hamilton, “Mary, what are you here for?” She said her mother refused to answer until the prosecutor referred to her as “Miss Hamilton.”


The judge ordered her to apologize to the prosecutor. Her lawyer then, quietly, informed her that she did not have to, and so she didn't. Because of this, she was found in contempt of court and sentenced a $50 fine.


Her lawyers challenged the fine and imprisonment because the prosecutor violated her constitutional rights by treating her differently than he treated white witnesses because he called white women “miss” but, did not give Mary Hamilton the same respect.

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The issue was deeper than the honorific. It had to do with respect and racial equality. Her demand to be respected brought her name before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court unanimously ruled that everyone in court deserves titles of courtesy, regardless of race or ethnicity. This set a standard for how witnesses, of any race, are addressed in courtrooms today.