March is Women’s History Month, and on March 8, 2021, we celebrate International Women’s Day. “I want to be like Gloria Richardson.” Why? She exhibited selfless activism, public fearlessness in the face of danger, and her unabashed comfort, in her will to work with and organize significant change with and for Black people.
Many people may remember seeing the Baltimore-born Gloria Richardson’s photograph taken in Cambridge, Maryland, where she pushed off a bayonet attached to a National Guardsman’s rifle in 1963. Richardson moved to Cambridge on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where she did much of her activism. The Eastern Shore was called the last plantation.
Cambridge stood neck-deep in Jim Crow segregation laws. These laws enforced racial segregation by mostly white Southern Democrats in the South. The Republican Party’s lily-white movement supported them. It all took place after the failure of the American Civil War Reconstruction. The Plessey v. Ferguson U.S. Supreme Court decision made it the official law of the land until 1954. These laws ended in 1965.
In his Ballot or the Bullet speech in Detroit, Malcolm X said, “If you black, you were born in jail, in the North as well as the South. Stop talking about the South. As long as you south of the Canadian border, you South.” One of my beginning sources for learning about Richardson was through the writings of Malcolm X. He used her name in talking about fighters for Black rights.
For Cambridge, Maryland dwellers, Gloria Richardson became a Harriet Tubman of her time in the early 1960s. Cambridge, Maryland, developed into a hotbed of Black activism between 1962 and 1964, thanks mainly to the organizing and mobilizing of Richardson. The Cambridge Nonviolence Action Committee (CNAC) was formed in 1962 with Richardson at the head.
The group became the only adult nonstudent-based SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Activism began with school integration, obtaining adequate housing, desegregating hospitals, and ending high unemployment.
The CNAC picketed the downtown business district and issued its demands to the Cambridge mayor and city council. Mainly, CNAC demanded full school integration, needed housing, ending hospitals’ segregation, and enhanced employment chances. Richardson refused to submit to the idea of nonviolence in the Cambridge quest for Black rights.
She did not give up the right to self-defense. “We weren’t going to stop until we got it, and if violence occurred, then we would have to accept that,” she said about nonviolence.
CNAC called on the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to aid the group, but were turned down. I don’t believe Richardson is in the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame but she is in mine and millions more, both Black, white, brown and yellow. Malcolm X would concur.
Read her biography, “The Struggle Is Eternal.” Several years ago before Zoom, I arranged for Richardson, now Richardson Dandridge, to take part in my class at Coppin State University via a telephone hook-up from New York City, where she lived with her daughter.
Her dazzling wit, her precocious mind and her spunkiness at the age of 92, came through over the telephone while talking to my class. Yes, I want to be like Gloria Richardson!
Former Coppin State University Professor, Dr. Ken Morgan is a human rights activist. He can be reached at: [email protected]