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Sun, 10.13.1935

Mary Hamilton, Union Activist born

Mary Hamilton

*Mary Hamilton was born on this date in 1935. She was a Black activist and union worker.

Hamilton, who grew up in Iowa and Denver, Colorado, wanted to be a nun but, after discovering socialism, became active in the American Civil Rights Movement in the South and joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

She participated in the Freedom Rides and was arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1961, enduring "sweltering jails, and invasive and unnecessary vaginal exams, answering police and jail officers with "polite noncompliance." She continued to protest and helped register voters, all the while being arrested frequently at protests and rose to the position of "field secretary," the only female field secretary at the time, only the third one in CORE's history, and the first one to be allowed to work in the South. In the end, she became CORE's Southern regional director.

After being arrested in Lebanon, Tennessee, a mayor who visited her addressed her as Mary, without the honorific "Miss" or "Mrs." which was then frequently denied to Blacks. Still, she corrected him: "if you don't know how to speak to a lady...then get out of my cell." Things came to a head when she was arrested in 1963 in Gadsden, Alabama. During cross-examination at a habeas corpus hearing by the prosecutor, she refused to answer unless he stopped addressing her as "Mary," demanding she be called "Miss Hamilton."

Supported by her lawyer and despite lewd comments by Judge Cunningham, she was fined $50 for contempt of court and spent five days in jail when she refused to pay. An appeal was filed on the grounds that she was denied her constitutional rights since she did not receive the same treatment as white witnesses. It was denied by the Alabama Supreme Court and ended up before the United States Supreme Court, which unanimously overruled the lower court without hearing oral arguments. The case made national headlines and landed Hamilton on the cover of Jet magazine, but left her tired and in ill health.

In 1964, she left to marry Walter Young, a dentist (brother of Andrew Young) & returned to Denver, her hometown. That marriage ended in divorce. After the divorce, Mary moved to New York & became an organizer for 1199, the Drug & Hospital Workers, for which she had been a volunteer organizer whenever she was in New York. Later, she left to marry Harold Wesley. That marriage also ended in divorce. She subsequently worked as a union organizer and an educator, earning an MAT from Manhattanville College in 1971. She taught English at Sleepy Hollow High School in Westchester, NY, for 19 years. She had one daughter, Holly Wesley, of Croton, NY.

Mary Hamilton, whose case before the US Supreme Court, Hamilton v. Alabama (1964), 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 and that calling a black person by his or her first name in a formal context was "a form of racial discrimination" died on November 11, 2002.



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