An awful lot has been said about Alexander Hamilton. Now the whole country, the world for that matter, knows his place in American history. But there's another Hamilton whose existence, whose choices, and whose grit we owe homage to. And I mean homage. I would be remiss if I didn't say that she is my personal hero and my favorite of the roughly 400 Freedom Riders. The civil rights activists who challenged the non-enforcement of the U. S. Supreme Court decisions which ruled that segregated public buses were unconstitutional.
5 FAST FACTS about Miss Mary Lucille Hamilton:
She wanted to become a nun, but instead became a teacher and union organizer.
She was given the nickname "Red," by Dr. Martin Luther King, not for her red-tinged hair, but for her temper.
She was a member of CORE from 1961 to 1964, rising to the position of Field Secretary at a time when the others were male, and also became a Southern Regional Director for CORE which was also rare for a woman at that time.
She drove a Plymouth Valiant while organizing in the South.
Her longtime friend, Sheila Michaels, was the woman responsible for pressing for women to legally have the option to be able to go by the alternative of Ms. instead of only Mrs. or Miss.
Here begins ARTHAUS:Detroit's Freedom Rider series
On October 13, 1935, Mary Lucille Hamilton was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She graduated from East Denver High School out west in Colorado and is said to have earned a Bachelor's degree at Briarcliff College, out east in New York, in 1953. Then she found her way back west and, in California, taught parochial school, even entertaining the idea of becoming a nun.
Somewhere in her working years, Mary Hamilton learned about socialism and the Civil Rights Movement, and made her way south. She became the Field Secretary for CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, which was formed in Chicago in 1942 "to bring about equality for all people regardless of race, creed, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, religion or ethnic background," per their motto. CORE was instrumental in the 1961 Freedom Ride campaign.
Hamilton is recorded as having taken her Freedom Ride from New Orleans, Louisiana to Jackson, Mississippi on June 25, 1961. Freedom Riders were typically booked and thrown in sweltering hot jails. And that was among the lightest of their challenges.
Mary Hamilton's jail time was not easy. It was physically unbearable in more ways than one, and she sustained a great deal of abuse. Why invasive vaginal jailhouse exams were necessary in her detention, is beyond any human reason and decency, but she endured the injury. Hamilton was not one to cry uncle.
Mary Hamilton was soft-spoken but tough. As righteously indignant as she was polite. Very light-complected, she refused to pass for white and was infuriated by family members who did. There was a particular instance when she told a jailer who intended to rape her that he'd have to kill her first. Guess who won that battle? Not the jailer. When arrested a previous time in Lebanon, Tennessee, and the presiding mayor visited her in jail, she told him that if he couldn't properly address her as a lady, he could get the hell out of her cell.
What's most important for us historically is that when in Gadsen, Alabama, Hamilton was booked for arrest and taken to court, she was denied the simple and basic courtesy of the honorific that was casually and routinely granted whites, including white fellow Freedom Riders. Principled and extremely polite, Hamilton became particularly incensed when the judge did not address her with courtesy. Though this took place in an especially tense time and a locale where the Klan was highly active, Hamilton was more furious than frightened and chose not return a courtesy where none was given. So, she refused to respond to any judge or officer of the court who did not address her respectfully. And none of them did.
Denial of this basic courtesy was about so much more than formality. Refusing to pay the fine for contempt of court, Hamilton spent 5 days in jail. She filed an appeal to the state of Alabama. Her claim that she was denied her constitutional rights, was denied. But, not one to be trifled with, she took her case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Victory came when The U.S. Supreme Court overruled Alabama's ruling.Hamilton took her complaint to court. All the way to the supreme court as a matter of fact. And, winning her case she, with the advocacy of the attorney that represented her, single-handedly terminated a custom of systemic disrespect that was a hallmark of white supremacy. For. Centuries.
Think about this.
It would be later, in 1971, that Miss Mary Hamilton would earn a Master's degree in teaching at Manhattanville College back out east in New York. As for her former interest in becoming a nun, I wouldn't have bet against her in any contest to see who'd have best maintained the vow of silence and kept their peace.
While we very much take for grantedthe privilege of being addressed as Mrs., Ms., now Mx., or even Miss, if Mary Lucille Hamilton had done so, there would still be a significant portion of the population, doing a significant portion of the living and working and dying in America, who would in no way want or be able to.
Sadly, Mary Hamilton died in 1967 at the relatively young age of 67. She was overcome by 4th-stage ovarian cancer. But it took seven years for this adversary to take her down.
Miss Mary. The other Hamilton. Civil Rights Titan.