When rapper Birdman angrily said on a radio show in 2016, “Put some ‘respek’ on my name,” he said it because he was offended by the disrespectful tone of the host’s comments.
When I angrily entitled my column “Put Some ‘Respek’ on Black Women’s Names,” I did it because I am offended by the disrespectful ruling of the Alabama Supreme Court exactly 55 years ago when, on Sept. 26, 1963, it — and three U.S. Supreme Court justices a year later — ruled that Black women, unlike white women, didn’t have to be addressed in court by judges, lawyers, court staff or witnesses as “Miss” or “Mrs.” but instead could be demeaningly addressed by their first names as if they were little girls.
On June 25, 1963, Mary Lucille Hamilton, a prominent 28-year-old civil rights activist, was arrested for protesting as a Freedom Rider traveling on a segregated train winding its way from New Orleans through parts of Alabama and ultimately to Jackson, Miss.
While cross-examining Ms. Hamilton during her trial in the Etowah County Courthouse in Gadsden, Ala. (where the KKK was quite active) for that June protesting arrest, the prosecutor repeatedly addressed her as “Mary.” And she repeatedly refused to answer, declaring, “I won’t respond until you call me ‘Miss’ Hamilton.” When the prosecutor complained to Judge Cunningham, the judge ordered her to respond. But she refused to do so. The judge then took Miss Hamilton and her lawyer, along with the prosecutor, in the back to his chambers and told the prosecutor, “Well, I know what I’d do if I had that little filly in my kitchen.”
The judge then returned with the parties back into the courtroom and again ordered her to respond to the name “Mary.” And again, she refused. As a result, she was held in contempt, sentenced to five days in jail plus a $50 fine. After serving those five days, she refused to pay even one penny of the fine and was ordered held in jail for 20 more days. However, she was immediately released when her bail was paid. She subsequently filed an appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court.
But that court upheld her conviction on the basis that Black women — unlike white women — didn’t deserve the respect of being addressed as “Mrs.” or “Miss.” In fact, those Alabama Supreme Court justices actually said that respecting Black women was a “frivolous” issue and that they wouldn’t be bothered with it because it was “an attempt to enforce social amenities and [accepted] rules of etiquette.”
Before mentioning more about the case, allow me to mention more about the great Ms. Hamilton. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree from Briarcliff College in 1953, she became a second-grade parochial school teacher in Los Angeles. This was during the time when the Freedom Riders movement began in 1961.
In addition to being a civil rights activist, she was also a proud socialist because, as she believed, socialism was the only real way to end not only racism against Black people but classism against poor people.
The goal of the Freedom Riders was to abolish segregation on interstate public transportation as well as to protect voting rights. Ms. Hamilton was so courageous and so effective as a civil rights activist that the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) appointed her as its Regional Director — the first woman ever to hold that prestigious position. In that role, she was responsible for organizing and attending demonstrations in every state in the Deep South.
When asked once what she experienced in her heroic career as a Freedom Rider, Miss Hamilton said, “Sweltering jails [and] invasive and unnecessary vaginal exams.” And when asked what she did in response to those humiliating jailhouse exams, she said she engaged in “polite noncompliance” until being forcibly and brutally examined.
She was often beaten while in custody. In one instance, following a severe beating, a jailer sadistically told her to scream so he could hear her react to the pain. But she refused and remained silent, as she vividly recalled, “out of sheer meanness and spite.” I’d add sheer bravery to that.
Following her incredibly fearless civil rights activism in the belly of the Southern beast, Ms. Hamilton became an organizer for 1199, then known as the Drug, Hospital and Health Care Employees Union, earned her Master of Arts degree in 1971 from Manhattanville College, and later taught high school English for 19 years until 1990.
She became an ancestor on Nov. 11, 2002 and immediately began hanging out with Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer.
As the readers of this article will notice from her mugshot photo, Ms. Hamilton was light-skinned and could easily have passed for white as some of her family members did. However, as stated by her daughter, Holly Wesley, her mother “was disgusted that anyone would pass. She identified very strongly as Black.”
Although the U.S. Supreme Court in this Hamilton v. Alabama case overruled the Alabama Supreme Court on March 30, 1964, based on the powerful argument by the NAACP and ACLU that the state was enforcing a “racial caste system” in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, three U.S. Supreme Court justices- namely Tom Clark, John Harlan and Byron White- dissented, thereby contending that it was legally and socially permissible in and out of court to disrespectfully address Black women as girls while respectfully addressing white women as adults.
By the way, Ms. Hamilton’s victory wasn’t exclusively for Black women. It also applied to Black men who then had to be referred to as “Mister” in court. I just love me some strong Black women!