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Jul 12 2013

“They call me Ms. Hamilton!”

There are some film scenes that are not only indelibly etched in one’s personal memory but become part of the collective memory of an entire generation. One such scene is this one with Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger from the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night, with Poitier as a police detective from Philadelphia who gets involved, alongside Steiger as the local sheriff, in a murder investigation in a small town in Mississippi and has to deal with the racism he encounters.

The line “They call me Mr. Tibbs” became so popular that they even made a sequel with that as the title.

I was reminded of this film when I listened to an NPR story this morning about a little known US Supreme Court case from 1963 that had considerable significance.

Apparently black witnesses and defendants in courts in the South were called by just their first names, unlike white people who were referred to as Mr. or Mrs. or Miss. When Mary Hamilton was arrested at a civil rights protest in Alabama in 1963, the judge referred to her as just ‘Mary’ and she refused to answer his questions until he addressed her with the same level of respect that was given to white people. For her pains she was charged with contempt, fined $50, and sent immediately to jail. She was allowed out on bond after five days but she refused to pay the fine and appealed her case to the Alabama Supreme Court which rejected her appeal.

Her case went all the way to the US Supreme Court and in 1964 in Hamilton v. Alabama (sometimes referred to as the “Miss Mary” case) the court summarily reversed the contempt charge. So because of Mary Hamilton (who died in 2002) refusing to abandon her sense of what is fair, now everyone has the right to be addressed respectfully in court.

Thank you, Ms. Hamilton.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    Mobius

    Bravo Ms. Hamilton.

    As for Mr. Poitier and Mr. Steiger, they both did magnificent acting jobs in In the Heat of the Night. And the movie did a wonderful job showing up the racism in the Deep South.

    Near the end of Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect series, Steiger was a guest. This would have been just a few years before his death. He was intelligent and articulate. And funny. A point had been made that he had once played Mussolini. So whenever someone disagreed with him, he would give them his scowling Mussolini face. It was one of my favorite PI shows.

  2. 2
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    Thank you for this. I’ve always adored Mr. Poitier, he’s done some seriously fantastic work in a lot of really great films. And this is a story I’d not heard about before. Bravissima to Ms. Hamilton.

  3. 3
    Trebuchet

    You’ve reminded me of seeing “They call me Mr. Tibbs” back when it was newly released. It was awful. The ending had Tibbs turning out to be the second coming of Jesus Christ, or something.

    And a big Bravo! to Ms. Hamilton from me, as well. There’s a REAL hero.

  4. 4
    Physicalist

    It’s a good reminder of how bad things were back then. My own father was the defendant in another SCOTUS case — one which established the right of blacks to be included in southern juries.

  5. 5
    MNb

    My hat off to Mrs. Hamilton. I hope I have some of her courage when I need it.
    Rod Steiger seems to be an underrated actor. He also excelled in Giu la Testa.

  6. 6
    Mano Singham

    Steiger was a terrific actor, but his name has inexplicably faded from the public’s memory, perhaps because he wasn’t a glamorous leading man.

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