June 1963. Gadsden, Ala. Mary Hamilton, 28, stood in a courtroom before a judge.
She was a black civil rights activist, arrested for nonviolent protest. And the judge was losing his patience.
The atmosphere in Gadsden that summer “was truly frightening and terrifying,” says Colin Morris, a history professor at Manhattanville College. “The Klan was highly active. On more than one occasion there had been attacks in Gadsden.”
But Hamilton wasn’t frightened. She was furious. She refused to answer the prosecutor’s questions.
“I won’t respond,” she said, “until you call me Miss Hamilton.”
It wasn’t just about an honorific. It was about respect and racial equality. Her demand was an act of defiance that would eventually bring her name before the U.S. Supreme Court and set a precedent for how witnesses are addressed in courtrooms today — with equal courtesy.
.. Mary Hamilton was constantly confusing and infuriating men in authority by standing up to their disrespect.
In Lebanon, Tenn., when a mayor visited her cell and referred to her as “Mary,” Hamilton corrected him. It was Miss Hamilton. Hamilton and Michaels recalled the moment in their oral history: “And if you don’t know how to speak to a lady,” Hamilton told the mayor, “then get out of my cell.”
At the time, throughout the ’60s, many white people — particularly in positions of authority — refused to use honorifics like “Miss,” “Mrs.” or “Mr.” to refer to black people.
.. 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 were not capable. And language becomes a very powerful force to do that.”
.. Which brings us to Gadsden, Ala. In 1963, Hamilton was arrested for picketing and brought before the court for sentencing. Once again, officials refused to call her Miss Hamilton.
She refused to answer. The judge — muttering lewd comments about what he’d like to do to her if she were in his kitchen — ordered her to answer the prosecutor and apologize. But Hamilton was buoyed by rage at the judge’s dismissiveness, and by the support of the lawyer assisting her.
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. Their brief decision effectively said that a court could not address black witnesses differently than white ones.