[UPDATE: Please see comment #7 by Holly Wesley, daughter of the late Mary 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.