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Gloria Richardson, founder and leader of the Cambridge, Maryland Nonviolent Action Committee (CNAC), was as tough as they come. “We can’t deal with her; we can’t deal without her,” bemoaned a White Citizens’ Council spokesman during the height of protests in the Eastern Shore city.
Unlike the gentle public persona of Rosa Parks, Richardson was openly militant, leading street protests while bucking non-violence ideology in the face of armed police forces.
According to SNCC Digital, she was an early advocate for the use of violence in self-defense when necessary. In the seminal photo, Gloria is seen pushing away a national guardsman’s rifle after Maryland Governor Millard Tawes enacted martial law.
Forever immortalized embodying the fearlessness and fortitude of Black women, Richardson did not emerge out of nowhere.
Richardson was born into the life she would live
Gloria Richardson was born in Baltimore, Maryland to a middle-class family with a history of local activism.
Gloria knew early on that racism went beyond separate schools and restaurants, but infected every facet of her life. Racism, and the denial of appropriate health care because of it, caused the early deaths of her father and uncle, which had a lasting impact on her.
Born to John and Mabel Hayes in 1922, Gloria and her family moved to Cambridge Maryland when she was six. Her mother’s family – the St. Clair’s – were prominent and politically active. Gloria’s grandfather – Herbert St. Clair – owned real estate, operated numerous businesses, and was the sole African-American member of the City Council.
According to SNCC Digital, they were the owners of grocery stores in Cambridge’s Second Ward, a predominantly Black community separated from the White neighborhood by Race Street. The men in her family were known as “race men,” who “worked to alleviate the oppression of poor Black people.”
Her own activism began in 1938 at Howard University in Washington, DC. She protested at the local Woolworth’s and conditions at Howard, before returning to Cambridge shortly after graduation.
Equipped with a bachelor’s in sociology, she worked for the federal government during World War II. When the war ended, she returned to Cambridge.
Gloria advocated for economic justice; demanding not only desegregation, but also good jobs, housing, schools, and health care.
Despite Gloria’s degree and connections, she couldn’t land a job back home as no agencies would hire a Black social worker. During this time, Gloria married Harry Richardson, a local school teacher, and was a homemaker for 13 years while raising their children.
When SNCC came to the Eastern Shore on Christmas Eve 1961, Richardson’s uncle Herbert St. Clair and cousin Freddie helped post bond for the protestors.
Richardson first got involved with the Movement when groups of high-schoolers, including her daughter Donna, began holding demonstrations and boycotts to disrupt the local economy.
Richardson attended SNCC’s 1962 Atlanta conference and returned to Cambridge with a new outlook on organizing. She became a member of SNCC’s executive board.
With the help of students from Swarthmore College, they surveyed the Second Ward to ensure that the organization prioritized the needs of the community.
In July 1963 – while her city was still under the Guard’s police presence – she met with U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to negotiate the Treaty of Cambridge, an agreement covering desegregation, housing and employment issues.
The Cambridge Movement directed its work towards improving living conditions for the people of the Second Ward. Meanwhile, continuing militant CNAC protests angered not only the Kennedy administration nearby in Washington, D.C., but also national civil rights leaders.
Gloria Richardson wanted “human rights, not White rights”
When the state of Maryland and federal negotiators, led by Robert Kennedy, proposed voting for the right of access to public accommodations in 1963–a so-called “Treaty of Cambridge“–CNAC boycotted the vote.
At a press conference, Richardson stated, “A first-class citizen does not beg for freedom. A first-class citizen does not plead to the white power-structure to give him something that the whites have no power to give or take away. Human rights are human rights, not White rights.”
She believed that “all of us, in Cambridge and throughout America will have to sacrifice and risk our personal lives and future in a nonviolent battle that could turn into civil war. For now, Negroes throughout the nation owe it to themselves and to their Country to have Freedom — all of it, here and now!”
Still as vocal, her demonstrative defiance inspired later efforts of the Black Panthers and others who adopted more militant responses to social injustices. Because of the successful protests that she led as head of the Cambridge (Maryland) Nonviolent Action Committee, Ebony magazine named her “the Lady General of Civil Rights.”
Richardson faced sexism within the Civil Rights Movement
Gloria took to the stage at the pivotal March on Washington, one of six “Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” on the program. Unfortunately, the male organizers did not allow neither she nor five other female freedom fighters a turn at the microphone.
Gloria resigned from the CNAC in the summer of 1964. Divorced from her first husband, she married photographer Frank Dandridge and moved to New York where she worked for the City’s Department of Aging and National Council for Negro Women.
Richardson is honored for a lifetime of bravery
In 2017, the state of Maryland honored her legacy by dedicating February 11 as “Gloria Richardson Day.”
Cambridge welcomed Gloria home five months later as the honored guest for “Reflections on Pine.” The four-day commemoration of civil rights, community and change was organized by the Eastern Shore Network for Change (ESNC) to mark the 50th anniversary of the ‘long, hot summer.’
Published by the University Press of Kentucky, Joseph R. Fitzgerald’s The Struggle Is Eternal: Gloria Richardson and Black Liberation, “explores the largely forgotten but deeply significant life of this central figure and her determination to improve the lives of Black people.”
A New York resident for more than 50 years, she continued to inspire people around the world – and in her hometown – until her death in July 2021 at age 99. In 2022 she was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.
Speaking on her July 2021 passing, Tya Young, her granddaughter, said Richardson died in her sleep in New York City and had not been ill. Young said while her grandmother was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, she didn’t seek praise or recognition.
“She did it because it needed to be done, and she was born a leader,” Young said.
Richardson’s spirit lives on in the next generation of Black women unafraid of disrupting status quos and unintentionally creating indelible images along the way.