When Professor Colin Morris was preparing for his course “American History Through Film,” he was not expecting to rediscover the story of a presidential Supreme Court case and Mary Hamilton, who also happened to be a Manhatanville alumna.
Mary Hamilton received her Master of Arts in Teaching in 1971 from Manhattanville, but before that, she was a civil rights activist in the deep south and served as the first female southern regional secretary for Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The case of Hamilton v. Alabama (1964), is what really denied Hamilton’s time as an activist. Despite this in influential experience, Hamilton had all but disappeared from the records of Civil Rights history.
In June of 1963 in Gadsden, Al., Hamilton and many others were arrested during protests. During these hearings, Hamilton was being referred to as “Mary” rather than “Miss Hamilton” – a common way to degrade African-Americans in court. In defiance, she refused to answer any questions until she was given the courtesy of a title like any of the white witnesses. Because of this, she was charged in contempt of the court and jailed. She then appealed her conviction and sentencing and went through two levels of Alabama state courts. Ultimately, in spring of 1964, the case was heard by the Supreme Court. With a unanimous decision, the court ruled in favor of Hamilton and that her conviction and sentencing were unconstitutional on the basis of segregation.
Her case set precedents, but really was only noticed in the African-American community. “In mainstream press, it was almost treated as a trivial case. They would refer to it as the ‘Miss Mary’ case, not really understanding the implications and what was at stake. It really is now the law of the land. It’s not even a legal proceeding unless everyone is addressed properly, so it is a significant case,” said Morris.
From what was started from a connection to Manhattanville, Morris’s interest in Hamilton’s legacy has grown. There is almost no scholarship written on her and only one interview with her, so he is taking it upon himself to share her story.
“There’s a lot of synchronicity when the place that you teach and care about connect with a genuinely important person and story that is undepreciated,” said Morris.
Additionally, he has spoken with her daughter and through independent research, he was able to uncover never-before-seen photos of her and a never-transcribed five-hour interview with her just before her death in 2002. Through this work, Morris is hoping to honor Hamilton and inform people of her landmark case.
But even before her case, Hamilton was a well-respected activist. She operated at the highest level with leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. but has been practically forgotten about. Morris wants to x that.
“I think she deserves [recognition] first at Manhattanville, but definitely beyond,” said Morris.
To do so, Morris has now created a lecture, where he presents his research and knowledge on Hamilton and her case. He has presented on campus for the community and just recently presented it in Washington D.C. with the Office of Alumni relations to an engaged group of alumni.
As his research continues, Morris hopes that Hamilton’s history can become part of Manhattanville’s.