Mary Hamilton Wesley, 67; Civil Rights Activist Challenged Segregation

From Staff and Wire Reports

Mary Hamilton Wesley, 67, a civil rights activist whose insistence that she be addressed with the same respect given whites became an issue before the U.S. Supreme Court, died Nov. 11 near Ossining, N.Y. She had battled ovarian cancer for several years.

In the 1960s, Wesley joined the Freedom Riders, a group that tested the South’s resistance to a 1960 Supreme Court ban on segregation at bus and train stations.

A light-skinned black who refused to pass for white, Wesley was arrested on charges of disturbing the police after a bus ride through Alabama in 1963. During the court hearing, an attorney insisted on calling her Mary, instead of Miss Hamilton. She said she would refuse to answer his question “until I am addressed correctly.”


The judge found her in contempt and sentenced her to five days in jail and a $50 fine.

Her conviction was upheld by the Alabama Supreme Court, but reversed in 1964 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wesley was a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She was educated at Briarcliff College and Manhattanville College, both in New York, and became an English teacher who taught for many years in the Los Angeles area.