I learned about Gloria Richardson when I was a teenager in the early 1960s. Following the example of the adults in my family, my sister and I paid close attention to news about the civil rights movement. I might have seen Richardson on TV, but more likely it was in the pages of Ebony, Jet, or the Call and Post, Cleveland’s Black newspaper. Although I had no real concept of sexism or gender politics at the time, Richardson made an impression because it was so unusual to see a Black woman out front leading.
Gloria Richardson died in Manhattan on July 15 at the age of 99. She was an exceptional leader who achieved national prominence during the civil rights era but in later years was often overlooked. In the hours after her death, The Hill tweeted, “Civil rights activist Gloria Richardson dies.” Astonishingly, it posted a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. Erasing Black women, especially Black women activists, is not uncommon, but substituting a picture of King for one of Richardson is particularly ironic in light of what occurred at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Despite the fact that Black women had kept the struggle for freedom alive for centuries, no woman was asked to give a major address at the march. Richardson was invited to speak for two minutes during a hastily arranged tribute to women, but the only word she was able to utter before her microphone was taken from her was “hello.” Richardson, whom many mainstream civil rights leaders viewed as too much of a firebrand, believed that the organizers were afraid that she might stray from the event’s messaging that was carefully orchestrated not to offend the Kennedy administration. The Hill’s disrespect is sadly reminiscent of the challenges Richardson had to confront and overcome decades ago.
Richardson got involved in organizing in her hometown of Cambridge, Md., in 1962 when local teenagers, including her daughter Donna, launched a campaign to protest the city’s segregated public facilities. At the time Richardson was 40 years old, divorced, and raising two daughters. She was drawn into the work when a group of parents decided to support the young activists.
Richardson soon took on a leadership role in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)–affiliated Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee. Despite its name, CNAC did not subscribe to nonviolence across the board. While it adhered to nonviolence as a tactic during demonstrations, its position was that people who were under attack in other circumstances had the right to defend themselves. The Eastern Shore had a notorious history of racial violence, including lynchings. Richardson emerged as a militant, outspoken advocate for her community as well as a canny and effective strategist. Under her leadership, CNAC expanded its demands beyond the traditional civil rights focus on desegregation to include jobs, decent housing, and health care.
Richardson referred to her innovative tactics as “creative chaos.” CNAC would assure white officials that they would not demonstrate and then go ahead with their plans. Escalating white violence against the Black community and the fact that Black people fought back led the governor and Kennedy administration to send in the National Guard, who remained in Cambridge for 18 months.
Richardson is best known for a 1963 photograph that shows her pushing aside a National Guardsman’s bayonet during a street confrontation that occurred when a white Guardsman called a Black man a racial slur. Not only does the photo capture a cinematic level of drama; it also displays Richardson’s courage and steely resolve. In a 2013 interview with Amy Goodman, Richardson describes the moment: “And then this guy started coming toward me. I thought he’s got to be crazy. And I don’t even know why I pushed the gun, but I know I was furious at that time.” The fact that we see a Black woman coolly facing off against a heavily armed white man in military uniform feels paradigm-shifting, especially when women were generally expected to be helpmates behind the scenes.
Sexism was not the only barrier that Richardson faced. Her radical approach sometimes resulted in her being marginalized. Richardson and other CNAC members faced constant threats, harassment, and violence. Richardson routinely received threatening phone calls. Before the National Guard was deployed in June of 1963, whites frequently rode through the Black community shooting at people and homes. Nevertheless, CNAC’s relentless campaign changed the racial power dynamics in the city and achieved significant wins. The 1963 agreement brokered directly with the Kennedy administration, referred to as the Treaty of Cambridge, included commitments to desegregate the county’s schools, hire a Black person to work in the local state employment office, and build a new public housing project.
In 1964, Richardson stepped down from leadership in CNAC. She explained at the time that she did not want to stay in her position and become an icon. She had always been committed to democratic, nonhierarchical grassroots organizing and wanted other leaders to emerge. Richardson’s faith that others would continue the struggle mirrors Ella Baker’s assertion that “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” Not surprisingly, Richardson worked closely with Baker in SNCC and valued her as both a mentor and friend.
Joseph R. Fitzgerald, author of The Struggle Is Eternal: Gloria Richardson and Black Liberation, makes the case that her unique brand of organizing that was simultaneously radical and pragmatic was an important bridge from civil rights politics to the more militant politics of Black power and Black liberation. Richardson’s friendship with Malcolm X, who highly respected her work, reflects her openness to revolutionary solutions.
Richardson’s politics are not necessarily easy to categorize, but at the end of the day, she was a race woman—a woman devoted to the betterment of Black people in America. She operated with unswerving integrity, was fiercely independent, and held strong views without being doctrinaire. Most importantly, she was not in it for herself but for her people. At a time when there is increasing recognition that Black women’s vision and leadership are critical to the survival of the nation, many who might be inspired by Richardson’s extraordinary life have never heard of her. Now that she is an ancestor, I hope they will.