A civil rights legend has been called home.
Gloria Richardson, the woman seen pushing a bayonet out of her way in the iconic civil rights photo, has passed away in her sleep at 99-years old. In 1963, a photojournalist snapped a picture of her dismissing an armed National Guardsmen in her home of Cambridge, Md., it encapsulated her determination not to back down while protesting racial inequality. She was a pioneer in the civil rights movement who, in recent years, has finally gotten the recognition she deserved for helping push the civil rights movement forward.
Her granddaughter, Tya Young, told the Associated Press that she died in her sleep Thursday at her home in New York City. Young describes her grandmother as a leader who did what was necessary not for praise but because she knew it had to happen.
“She did it because it needed to be done, and she was born a leader,” Young said.
Gloria St. Clair Hayes was born on May 6, 1922, in Baltimore and grew up in Cambridge. Her father, who worked as a pharmacist, relocated there during the great depression.
Her hometown had a connection to another Black freedom fighter, Harriet Tubman. She’d been born into slavery in Dorchester County, and it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. This link to a powerful ancestor seemed to have sparked something in Richardson because she was an activist even as a child. Decades before Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, she was refusing to stand for the flag. Following series of lynchings along the Eastern Shore, she refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance believing that “liberty and justice for all” did not apply to Black people.
The fiery young woman entered Howard University at 16-years-old where she studied sociology, and following her graduation in 1942, she became a federal civil servant. While in Washington, she continued her activism, picketing the segregated Woolworth’s store for their racist tactics. She decided to move back to Cambridge but was blocked from employment in the Maryland Department of Social Services. In 1948, she married Harry Richardson, a schoolteacher with whom she had two children before they divorced.
She came from a well-to-do family who was immeshed in the community’s political and business concerns. Her grandfather had served for decades on the town council as a representative for the all-Black ward of Cambridge. She didn’t expect to become a civil rights leader, but fate had other things in mind.
While working at her father’s drugstore, the then 39-year-old encountered the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the civil rights group known as SNCC, and the Freedom Riders. They rode interstate buses to confront segregation. They set their sights on Cambridge in 1961. In 1962 she attended a SNCC meeting in Atlanta. Then, when her relative who worked as the chairperson for the SNCC affiliate, the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee, stepped down she assumed leadership.
Ebony magazine once called her “the lady general of civil rights.” Her bravado and independence meant she never felt the need to bow to the whims of American leaders or the heads of the civil rights movement. She had one group to please, she said, the Black people facing unequal treatment, substandard living conditions, and extreme poverty in Cambridge. She constantly pressured officials from the city to the federal level on desegregation and, more importantly, “bread and butter” issues such as housing, jobs, and healthcare.
The injustice faced in her city was easy to spot. The Black unemployment grew to about 30% in 1961 due to a packing plant, the largest employer in the area, closing down. Only one Black police officer was on the force, and they were not allowed to arrest white people. And many poor Black people lived in converted chicken coops with no running water in Dorchester county even though Cambridge was the county seat. The people were tired.
Tensions rose, and by the summer of 1963, there were violent clashes between whites and Blacks in the community. Richardson implored President John. F. Kennedy to help “avert civil war.” The White House sent for her. She warned the attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, that making deals with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King or any other civil rights leaders was pointless unless they had the people on the ground supporting the effort.
“These national leaders cannot make any agreement with you,” she told Kennedy, according to a published account about female civil rights activists, “Hands on the Freedom Plow.” “They can participate, but they can’t have the final say. It’s us. It doesn’t matter what anybody else says. It’s our bodies out in the streets.”
Following an unsuccessful visit from an envoy of Dr. King’s, she was sidelined at the August 1963 March on Washington.
“When I was called to speak,” she recalled, “I went to the front, picked up the microphone, and all I was able to say was ‘Hello.’ Before I could say another word, an NAACP official took the mic away.”
As one of the few women leading local civil rights protests at the time, she called herself “a radical, a revolutionary. She promoted teachings of nonviolence from Dr. King and the right to defend yourself from her friend and supporter, Malcolm X. This ostracized her from mainstream civil rights groups and liberal leaders who attempted to paint her as a vigilante. President Lyndon B. Johnson and Senate leaders condemned those who fought back when attacked as counterproductive to the cause of justice, saying in a joint statement, “Civil wrongs do not bring civil rights.” Undeterred by detractors, she persisted in fighting for the human and civil rights of her community.
When the governor of Maryland, J. Millard Tawes, declared martial law in Cambridge in June of 1963 hundreds of National Guard troops descended onto the town. The photo, still used to galvanize civil rights activists today, was taken as she attempted to calm Black protesters; it perfectly captured her fearlessness. Robert Kennedy tried to make a deal by calling for schools, housing, and employment to be desegregated in the “Treaty of Cambridge.” Still, Richardson refused to settle for anything less than full equal access. The “Battle Of Cambridge” didn’t end until The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed by Johnson that July, and the National Guard left after a year of being embedded in the community.
After three years of championing for her community and Black people at large, Richardson stepped down from her role. She was burnt out. She went on to marry Frank Dandridge, a freelance photographer who covered the protest. Although she left the spotlight, she continued to aggressively fight for civil rights. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, she called on young people to bolster their efforts, so they don’t need to keep fighting for decades to come.
“Racism is ingrained in this country. This goes on and on,” she told The Washington Post last year. “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.”
“I say that the Cambridge Movement was the soil in which Richardson planted a seed of Black power and nurtured its growth,” Joseph R. Fitzgerald, who wrote a 2018 biography on Richardson titled “The Struggle is Eternal: Gloria Richardson and Black Liberation.”
“Everything that the Black Lives Matter movement is working at right now is a continuation of what the Cambridge Movement was doing,” Fitzgerald said.
Dorchester County made slow progress, electing its first Black commissioner in 1986, and Cambridge got its first Black mayor in 2008. That same year, she received a key to the city, a street named after her, and proclamations from local, state, and federal officials.
“This is really overwhelming,” she said, considering that many earlier holders of those offices “were ready to run us out of town back then.”
She is survived by her daughters, Donna Orange and Tamara Richardson, and granddaughters Young and Michelle Price.
We are sending our love to all that knew her.
Photo Credit: AP News