NPR

When 'Miss' Meant So Much More: How One Woman Fought Alabama — And Won

In 1963, in Gadsden, Ala., an activist stood defiantly in court. The prosecutor called her Mary. She refused to answer until he called her Miss Hamilton — as he would do for a white woman.
Mary Hamilton, seen here with James A. Farmer of CORE, was a civil rights organizer who fought for the right to be addressed as "Miss" in an Alabama court and won. Source: Duane Howell

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.

"We're finally fighting back!"

Hamilton grew up in Iowa and Colorado. For a while she thought she'd be a nun —

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