Civil rights pioneer Gloria Richardson, a woman known for her unrelenting activism, has died. A great loss for the Black community, Richardson’s determination not to back down while protesting racial inequality was captured in a photograph as she pushed away the bayonet of a National Guardsman.
Her granddaughter, Tya Young, confirmed Richardson’s passing, saying that she died in her sleep Thursday in New York City and had not been ill. Young also added an extra measure of intent for those who felt she had been overlooked in the chronicling of civil rights history. “She did it because it needed to be done, and she was born a leader,” Young said.
Richardson was the first woman to lead a prolonged grassroots civil rights movement outside the Deep South.
In 1962, she helped organize and led the Cambridge Movement on Maryland’s Eastern Shore with sit-ins to desegregate restaurants, bowling alleys and movie theaters in protests that marked an early part of the budding Black Power movement.
“I say that the Cambridge Movement was the soil in which Richardson planted a seed of Black power and nurtured its growth,” said Joseph R. Fitzgerald, who wrote a 2018 biography on Richardson titled The Struggle is Eternal: Gloria Richardson and Black Liberation. She became the leader of demonstrations over bread and butter economic issues like jobs, health care access and sufficient housing.
“Everything that the Black Lives Matter movement is working at right now is a continuation of what the Cambridge Movement was doing,” Fitzgerald said.
In pursuit of these goals, Richardson stood up for and advocated for the right of Black people to defend themselves whenever forces of evil attacked them.
“Richardson always supported the use of nonviolent direct action during protests, but once the protests were over and if Black people were attacked by whites she fully supported their right to defend themselves,” Fitzgerald said.
Born in Baltimore, Richardson later moved to Cambridge in Maryland’s Dorchester County, which is the same area where Harriet Tubman was born. She enrolled at Howard University when she was 16, and later in 1962 she attended the meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Atlanta, later joining the board.
The following year in the summer of 1963, peaceful sit-ins turned violent in Cambridge, and Gov. J. Millard Tawes declared martial law. Cambridge Mayor Calvin Mowbray asked Richardson to halt the demonstrations in exchange for an end to the arrests of Black protesters, and Richardson declined to do so. On June 11, rioting by white supremacists erupted and Tawes called in the National Guard.
With the city still under National Guard presence, Richardson met with U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to negotiate what became informally known as the “Treaty of Cambridge.” It ordered equal access to public accommodations in Cambridge in return for a one-year moratorium on demonstrations. Richardson was a signatory to the treaty, but she had never agreed to end the demonstrations.
It was only the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that began to resolve issues at the local level.
She was one of the nation’s leading female civil rights’ activists and inspired younger activists who went on to protest racial inequality in the late 1960s and into the 1970s.
Richardson was on the stage at the pivotal March on Washington in 1963 as one of six women listed as “fighters for freedom” on the program. However, she was only allowed to say “hello” before the microphone was taken from her.
She would later resign from the Nonviolent Action Committee in the summer of 1964. After divorcing her first husband, she remarried photographer Frank Dandridge and moved to New York where she worked for the National Council for Negro Women.
A true inspiration to those who continue to fight and advocate for the equal treatment of Black Americans, Gloria Richardson is survived by her daughters, Donna Orange and Tamara Richardson, and granddaughters Tya Young and Michelle Price.
Here at EBONY, we give our thanks for her support and service, and offer sincerest condolences to the Richardson family.