The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gloria Richardson pushed aside a bayonet as a ’60s civil rights activist. Now 98, she wants the new generation to fight on.

Gloria Richardson, 98, at her home in New York. Richardson was a leader in the civil rights movement in Cambridge, Md. (Michael Noble Jr. for The Washington Post)
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More than five decades after she faced off with armed National Guardsmen during protests over segregation, Gloria Richardson watched as outrage over the death of George Floyd prompted thousands to take to the streets.

The civil rights fighter was angry the nation had not made more progress since she helped lead a racial justice uprising on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the 1960s. But the news images from across the country also sparked hope: While the protesters who had joined her were predominantly Black, she watched a mix of races, all marching together to continue their work.

At age 98, Richardson has not softened an aggressive stance that sometimes put her at odds with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the civil rights movement. She called on the new generation of activists to keep it up — and do more.

“Racism is ingrained in this country. This goes on and on,” Richardson said one recent day from the living room of the New York home she shares with one of her daughters. “We marched until the governor called martial law. That’s when you get their attention. Otherwise, you’re going to keep protesting the same things another 100 years from now.”

In the 1960s, Richardson was living in Cambridge, Md., about 90 miles southeast of Washington, D.C., when she became a leader in demonstrations over equal access for Black residents in housing, education, jobs and health care in the same county where Harriet Tubman was enslaved.

Richardson was an advocate for peaceful change but did not back down from meeting force with force, and the protests ultimately resulted in clashes with authorities, along with fires and arrests. She was arrested three times and received multiple death threats.

During what became known as the Cambridge Movement, Richardson caught the eye of the nation, including the Kennedy administration. She earned a place beside some of the country’s most prominent civil rights fighters and became one of the key female leaders in the movement.

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In 1963, armed with her icy side-eye gaze and grit, Richardson was photographed using her outstretched hand to push aside the bayonet and rifle of a National Guardsman. Decades later, that image remains one of the iconic moments photographed during the civil rights movement.

Those kinds of standoffs with authorities and officials, she said during recent telephone and Zoom interviews, remain necessary in an America where Black citizens continue to face inequities in the criminal justice system, housing, health care and other areas compared with their White counterparts.

“I grew up in a middle-class environment, but I saw what other Blacks less fortunate than I had to deal with every day,” she said, her voice beginning to quiver. “Even today, until everyone is on the same plane, then the fight continues. This fight is still the same fight as before.”

'I wasn't afraid'

In the 1960’s, Gloria Richardson emerged as one of the nation’s leading civil rights fighters. Now, at 98, she talks about how she sees U.S. race relations. (Video: The Washington Post)

Richardson became involved in her first social activism in the late 1930s as a student at Howard University in Northwest Washington. She and other students protested the Peoples Drug store near campus that refused to hire Black workers. She even bucked her big sisters of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s oldest Black sorority, who she said were tougher in their treatment of darker-skinned pledges.

About a quarter-century later, she was a divorced mother raising two daughters and working at the pharmacy and grocery store owned by her family in a predominantly Black community in Cambridge. It was motherhood, she said, that sparked her activist role there.

Her oldest daughter, Donna, along with friends, had joined demonstrations for the integration of movie theaters and restaurants in their hometown. Richardson said she didn’t like how White police and residents were responding and joined the movement, as more of a protective mama bear.

“They just started arresting all of these kids, all of these Black kids, our kids,” Richardson recalled.

She was in her early 40s when she became the leader of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee. Although she says she believed in nonviolence as a “first step” in demonstrations, she also encouraged her followers to use physical force if confronted with threats.

As tensions rose, King and John Lewis repeatedly urged Richardson to be less confrontational and more compromising, she said. But she refused to yield. Her no-holds-barred approach won the support of more militant Black leaders including Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.

Summer of fire

National news outlets carried stories and photos of clashes between Black residents and police in the small city, making such battles not far from the nation’s capital a global embarrassment for the Kennedy administration.

Richardson’s Cambridge battles attracted the attention of members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, also known as SNCC, who traveled to Cambridge to help. Richardson also recalled that White students from Harvard University and Bennington College came to offer support.

Washington-based author and activist Joyce Ladner was a college student when she met Richardson at a SNCC gathering in 1963. Ladner recalled being amazed at seeing this middle-aged woman walking around with a group of young Black men accompanying her.

“They were very loyal to her,” Ladner recalled.

Ladner remembers Richardson as a fierce fighter for equal rights.

“Gloria didn’t give a damn what you said about her. She wasn’t impressed with King, Kennedy or anybody else. She considered herself to be as good as these guys were, if not better,” Ladner said. “Gloria was a card. If you had Gloria on your side, you didn’t need anybody else.”

In 1962, James “Jim” Boardley was a student at Maryland State College, now the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and co-founded a student civil rights group that participated in the Cambridge protests.

Boardley was accompanying Richardson in 1963 when she confronted the National Guardsman. Boardley, now 78 and living in Fort Washington, Md., said during a recent interview that then-Gov. J. Millard Tawes waited until Richardson and other leaders were out of town and called the National Guard in to calm the uprising. When Richardson heard the news, she and the others raced back, fearing the residents and officers could end up in a violent clash.

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“She was trying to tell them that we were peacefully demonstrating and there was no need to be there with rifles and bayonets,” he said.

The Guardsmen, Boardley remembered, “were as shocked as everyone else was,” he recalled with a boisterous laugh. “This little lady, coming right there with guns pointed at her and she the takes her hand and shoves it out of the way and kept walking.”

There were nearly 100 male students walking with Richardson at the time. “We weren’t just going to allow something to happen to her,” he said.

And Richardson knew it. “I wasn’t afraid. I was upset. And if I was upset enough, I didn’t have time to be afraid,” she said. “And besides, we had guns, too.”

In an effort to quell the violent demonstrations, Maryland and federal authorities, led by then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, in 1963 drafted a proposition that required Cambridge residents to vote for the right of access to public accommodations.

But Richardson and her group urged Black residents to boycott the vote of the legislation that was dubbed the “Treaty of Cambridge.” Kennedy, his brother, President John F. Kennedy, King and other leaders were angered by Richardson’s decision, believing voters would pass the legislation and bring an end to the violence.

But Richardson believed such changes should not be left up to a vote.

“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,” Richardson said during a news conference at the time.

Eastern Shore town prefers to put its racially torn past behind it

In an effort to facilitate a truce between Richardson’s group and White leaders in Cambridge, Robert Kennedy later that year summoned both sides to Washington. At the gathering, Kennedy tried to ease the obvious tension in the room. He asked if Richardson if she knew how to smile, a scene that Lewis, who was also present at the meeting, recounted in his 1998 memoir, “Walking With the Wind.”

Richardson recently recalled she had displayed a quick smile for the audience at Kennedy’s urging. Looking back, she said she found such requests trivial but used by some men in their dealings with women.

“Maybe it makes them feel more comfortable when we smile,” Richardson said. “We were there to talk about civil rights. That was nothing to smile about.”

A lesser-known leader

At the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King gave his famed “I Have a Dream” speech,” Richardson was chosen to be one of the honorees. In the printed program for the event outlining the day’s events, the names of 23 people were typed. Richardson was among six women honored as “freedom fighters.”

Still, her legacy is less known than other women in the movement, such as Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer or Dorothy Height. Unlike Richardson, they were more behind-the-scenes organizers or nonconfrontational fighters.

“She is not as well known because she was a woman who was feisty and who refused to back down,” Lopez Matthews Jr., a historian and digital production librarian at Howard University, said of Richardson. “As a society, we tend not to value those traits in women. But it made her a great leader in the civil rights movement, because she didn’t back down.”

Some historians see similarities between Richardson’s activism and the work of contemporary advocacy groups such as Black Lives Matter. Initially created to bring attention to the killings of Black men and women by police, the group’s focus has broadened to include other equality issues. In many of the Black Lives Matter groups around the nation, women have emerged as the more vocal leaders.

“Her actions and her vision of Black liberation from 60 years ago is exactly what the current movement for Black lives is focused on right now,” said author and historian Joseph R. Fitzgerald, writer of Richardson’s 2018 biography, “The Struggle is Eternal.”

“It is bread-and-butter issues, jobs, health care, housing, people shouldn’t be evicted from their homes during a pandemic.

“The Cambridge Movement organized around desegregation, to put the public pressure on the system and shut down the economy of Cambridge and break the back of the White community’s livelihood and force them to cede power. That is what BLM is doing now, organizing around police brutality,” Fitzgerald said. “But they have a bigger agenda. They have more goals than just ending police brutality.”

Richardson participated in the Cambridge marches from 1962 through 1964. In June 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination nationwide on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities, and made employment discrimination illegal.

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After the Civil Rights Act was signed, Richardson married Life magazine photographer Frank Dandridge, and the family moved to New York. Richardson worked for a time at an advertising agency before taking a job with the city’s department for the aging, where she helped ensure businesses complied with laws that affected seniors. She retired in 2012 at age 90.

“She was not in the movement for a career,” Fitzgerald said. “She was in the movement solely for the purpose of advancing Black liberation. And when she felt she could be of no further meaningful use in the movement, she would step aside.”

Richardson believed that Black women were used to fighting for changes. Black men, she said, often had the financial responsibility of taking care of families and therefore were careful not to buck against the status quo.

“Initially when women start fighting for something, men don’t pay attention to it. They think we’re overreacting, or not acting properly,” she said with a laugh.

Just two years from celebrating centenarian status, Richardson, now a grandmother of two and a great-grandmother, is still as unrelenting as that woman who pushed aside the bayonet.

“Fight for what you believe in,” she said, “but stop being so nice.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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