Fiery civil rights activist ignited national furore over direction of the movement
Gloria Richardson, who has died aged 99, was a firebrand civil rights activist who drew national attention in the early 1960s in a showdown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that presaged the Black Power movement and led to a year-long imposition of martial law.
For three years Richardson galvanised protests against segregation and fought for economic justice for Cambridge’s 4200 Black residents. She not only was a spearhead for civil rights in her community, she also helped set off a national furore over the direction of the civil rights struggle.
In particular, the uprising in Cambridge straddled a fault line between advocates for nonviolence, such as the Rev Martin
Luther King Jr, and more extremist leaders such as Malcolm X, whom Richardson considered a friend. Calling herself ‘‘a radical, a revolutionary’’, she was also reportedly one of the only women leading a local civil rights protest movement at the time.
Her embrace of all tactics – negotiations and force – did not go over well with mainstream civil rights groups and liberalminded religious figures who sometimes likened the militant approach to vigilantism.
Richardson, then a 39-year-old divorced mother of two in Cambridge, emerged as an activist by happenstance. She came from a prosperous family ingrained in the community’s business life and political affairs.
She was working in her father’s drugstore when the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee, a nationwide civil rights group known as SNCC, and the Freedom Riders, who rode interstate buses to confront segregation, targeted Cambridge in 1961.
When another relative left the role, Richardson assumed the chairmanship of a SNCC affiliate, the Cambridge Non-violent Action Committee – a misnomer, given the organisation’s belief in violence as an agent of change.
Richardson not only pressured city, county, state and federal officials on desegregation but also heavily emphasised ‘‘bread and butter’’ issues such as housing, jobs and health care.
The town’s largest employer, a packing plant, had closed, and Black unemployment had reached around 30 per cent in 1961. The community’s sole Black police officer wasn’t allowed to arrest whites, and many poor Blacks lived in converted chicken coops with no running water.
By the summer of 1963, simmering racial tensions began to erupt into violent clashes – involving shootings, arsons and Molotov cocktails – between Blacks and whites. Richardson clamoured for President John F Kennedy to visit the town ‘‘to avert civil war’’.
‘‘Racism is ingrained in this country. This goes on and on. We marched until the governor called martial law. That’s when you get their attention.’’
When she was summoned to the White House, she later recalled warning the attorney-general, Robert F Kennedy, that it would be fruitless to make deals with King or other major civil rights leaders.
When a King emissary arrived, she sent him packing. She was subsequently sidelined at the August 1963 March on Washington, where King gave his ‘‘I have a dream’’ speech. ‘‘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.’’
The Maryland governor, J Millard Tawes, declared martial law in June 1963, bringing in hundreds of National Guard troops. While the soldiers tried to enforce calm, Robert Kennedy and his top aides helped broker an accord calling for the desegregation of schools, housing and employment.
Cambridge was further destabilised by a May 1964 visit from George C Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor then seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. Richardson was among those tear-gassed and arrested in protests.
By summer, the first campaign for the ‘‘Battle for Cambridge’’, as it was widely called, was coming to a denouement. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed by President Lyndon Johnson that July, and the National
Guard troops began their withdrawal.
That year, Richardson relinquished her role with the Cambridge Non-violent Action Committee. She left the spotlight but maintained her aggressive approach to civil rights activism for decades, calling on a younger generation of protesters to do more after the killing of George Floyd in 2020.
‘‘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.’’
Gloria St Clair Hayes was born in Baltimore and grew up in Cambridge. As a child, she showed early signs of dissent. After a spate of lynchings on the Eastern Shore, she refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance because she believed its promise of ‘‘liberty and justice for all’’ did not apply to Blacks.
Richardson spent the past five decades in relative obscurity. After 1964 she devoted much of her life to working on anti-poverty issues and programmes for the ageing in New York City. She is survived by her two daughters, two granddaughters, and a greatgrandson.