March 30th, 1964

Supreme Court Reverses Contempt Conviction for Woman Who Challenged Disrespect

In June 1963, Mary Hamilton, a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality in Alabama, was one of hundreds arrested during civil rights protests in Gadsden, Alabama. On June 25, the local court held a hearing to determine the legitimacy of those arrests. While Ms. Hamilton was on the witness stand, Etowah County Solicitor William Rayburn addressed her by her first name only. Ms. Hamilton refused to answer Mr. Rayburn's questions until she was accorded the same courtesy he had accorded white witnesses and addressed her as "Miss." Mr. Rayburn did not comply and Judge A.B. Cunningham held Ms. Hamilton in contempt of court, sentenced her to five days in jail and fined her $50.

Ms. Hamilton served the jail time but refused to pay the fine and was allowed out on bond to appeal the contempt conviction. The Alabama Supreme Court denied her appeal, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund appealed to the United States Supreme Court. On March 30, 1964, the Supreme Court overturned Ms. Hamilton's contempt citation in Hamilton v. Alabama.


March 30th, 1908

Green Cottenham Arrested for Vagrancy in Alabama

On March 30, 1908, Green Cottenham, a black man, was arrested and charged with “vagrancy” in Shelby County, Alabama. An offense created at the end of the Reconstruction Period and disproportionately enforced against black citizens, vagrancy was defined as an inability to prove employment when demanded by a white person.

Twenty-two-year-old Cottenham was quickly found guilty in a brief appearance before the county judge without a lawyer, and received a sentence of thirty days of hard labor. He was also assessed a variety of fees payable to nearly everyone involved in the process, from the sheriff to the deputy to the court clerk to the witnesses. Due to his inability to pay these fees, Cottenham’s sentence would actually last nearly a year.

The day after his court appearance, Cottenham was turned over to the Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company. The company leased him from Shelby County for $12 per month, which was to go toward paying off the owed fees and fines. Cottenham was sent to work in the Pratt Mines outside Birmingham, in Slope No. 12 mine where conditions were brutal. By the time Cottenham was released nearly a year later, more than sixty of his fellow prisoners had died of disease, accidents, or homicide. Most of their corpses were burned in the mine’s incinerators or buried in shallow graves surrounding the mine.