Miss Mary Hamilton and Ms. Sheila Michaels, claiming titles for women
December 14, 2017 1:23 PM   Subscribe

Mary Hamilton and Sheila Michaels were civil rights activists in the '60s. We know their story in part because Sheila Michaels recorded hours of interviews with Mary Hamilton in the '90s, and in part because Mary Hamilton fought to be referred to as Miss Hamilton in court, in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court where her case was decided without hearing any oral arguments in 1964. Sheila Michaels was inspired by a piece of mail addressed to her roommate, Mary Hamilton, to be the champion for the title of Ms. starting in in 1961 (previously).

As recounted in NPR's obituary for Michaels:
The two women met through The Congress of Racial Equality in New York. They moved in together around 1961, and spent the next few years living, traveling, protesting and registering voters together. (And having plenty of fun, too. "We partied a lot. I mean, we had great parties," Michaels said in that oral history.)

The fateful piece of mail arrived that first year of their friendship and activism. It was a left-wing magazine addressed to Ms. Mary Hamilton, but it was Michaels who was struck by inspiration. Those two little letters ...

"Wow, wonderful! Ms. is me!" Michaels thought, according to a 2000 interview with Japan Times.

"The first thing anyone wanted to know about you was whether you were married yet," Michaels told The Guardian in 2007. "I'd be damned if I'd bow to them." Going by "Ms." suddenly seemed like a solution; a word for a woman who "did not 'belong' to a man."
Michaels recounted Hamilton's stand for equal recognition in the courts that started in 1963, in an interview with NPR in 2013:
It was custom to only address black people by their first name.

That practice didn't sit well with Mary Hamilton. She was a teacher, a Freedom Rider and the first female field organizer in the South for the Congress of Racial Equality. Her roommate during this time, Sheila Michaels, says Hamilton was tough — brave — like the nuns of her Catholic school upbringing.

"And her opinions were unbendable, iron," Michaels says.

Civil rights protests in Alabama hit a crescendo in the spring of 1963. In Gadsden, a factory town northeast of Birmingham, police arrested Hamilton and other demonstrators. At a hearing that June, the court referred to her as "Mary."

"And she just would not answer the judge until he called her 'Miss Hamilton.' And he refused. So he found her in contempt of court," Michaels says.

So Mary Hamilton was thrown in jail and fined $50. The NAACP took the case that eventually appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled the following year in Hamilton's favor. In other words, the ruling decided that everyone in court deserves titles of courtesy, regardless of race or ethnicity. Michaels says Hamilton was immensely proud of the case.

"I mean, a Supreme Court case, you know, decided for you. Are you kidding? This is a big deal," she says.
posted by filthy light thief (7 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
This is fantastic! I can't believe I hadn't heard these stories before now.
posted by Sublimity at 4:40 PM on December 14, 2017

Thank you so much for this post!
posted by panhopticon at 5:43 PM on December 14, 2017

"At a hearing that June, the court referred to her as "Mary.""

This is just infuriating and one of the handful of things that became clearly much more disrespectful after I passed the bar. You read these old court transcripts and just gasp at the overt disrespect.

The other thing they used to do a lot was call black lawyers "Lawyer Smith" instead of "Mr. Smith." ENRAGING. (Part of the way you knew Thurgood Marshall had become a Big Deal was that even in the South, judges and opposing attorneys called him Mr. Marshall instead of the traditional "Lawyer Marshall.")

Some day kids will read novels of the Jim Crow South and they won't have any idea that "Lawyer Marshall" is racist and wildly disrespectful, unless they're the diligent kind who read the footnotes.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:37 PM on December 14, 2017 [11 favorites]

Wow. Utterly amazing.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 10:26 PM on December 14, 2017

Thank you for this.
posted by lokta at 6:07 AM on December 15, 2017

I talk to a lot of people on the phone, people from different companies and locations. Some people I talk to, generally southern-sounding people, make a huge point of calling me Ms. Elizilla. And it's my first name they are using, since I didn't give them my last name. As a white northern woman I always find it kinda overly precious and head-patting; they sound to me like grandparents talking to tiny children. But I try to take things in the spirit intended and I don't think they mean it that way so I never let it bother me. Now, though, I am wondering if *this* is what it's all about when they do that?

Now I feel like an idiot because of course it is! But it never occurred to me before to interpret it that way. Mind blown.
posted by elizilla at 6:26 AM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

My dad was a product of his racist times and even until his death continued to use the n-word and other derogatory slurs for African Americans. However, when I was a child, he taught me that you ALWAYS address an adult as Miss/Mrs/Mr Lastname until they give you permission to do otherwise. One afternoon, we were in town picking up some parts for his planer and the lady working the desk at the parts place was African American. She apparently knew my dad from other interactions and greeted him with a friendly, "Hey Mr. Lastname, who's this pretty lady?" He gave her my name and said, "T, this is Mrs. Johnson. Her daddy worked for your grandfather." I said hi and she gave me a butterscotch.

Years later, I went to high school with her son and he mentioned how much his mom just adored my dad. When I asked him why, he said it was because my dad was always respectful and called her Mrs. Johnson rather than just Ruby like everyone else.

It never occurred to me that it was a racial thing until much later. And it made me just a smidge proud of my dad that he at least didn't play into that bullshit racist struggle.
posted by teleri025 at 7:30 AM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

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