We lost a true giant of justice yesterday. Gloria Richardson was not that well known anymore. But her role in the civil rights movement was transformative. In the early 1960s, she was the leader of the civil rights movement on Maryland’s eastern shore, based in the town of Cambridge. She was a true militant, someone who did not exactly reject King’s ideas of nonviolence, but one who kept them at arm’s length, embracing a black nationalism that could include armed self-defense. She openly called herself a revolutionary. She alienated the male dominated ministers side of the civil rights movement who did not trust her militancy and did not trust a woman as a leader. Seriously, these guys, from King on down, were super duper sexist. She was no youngster either. She was 40 years old as she led this and originated in the town’s Black middle class. She said that if John F. Kennedy didn’t visit Cambridge in 1963, there would be “civil war” between the races and her civil war was most definitely an armed struggle. She was supposed to talk at the March on Washington, but was basically shoved out the way by one of the SCLC officials right as she began her speech. When a compromise worked out by Bobby Kennedy called for a vote on desegregation, she rejected it and told her followers to not vote because rights should not be decided by a plebiscite, a point about which she was absolutely correct.
Eventually, Richardson married a photographer and moved to New York, where she took on a more subdued role as an anti-poverty work. She was super burned out after three years of hell and she was not only major figure of the 1960s who disappeared from the public eye in the aftermath. Take Bob Moses, who was the almost Christ-like head of SNCC’s voting campaign in Mississippi and then was so burned out he fled to Africa for a few years before becoming a math teacher in Boston for the rest of his career.
Gloria Richardson was a legend in the Black freedom struggle. That we don’t know more about her–just like we don’t know very much as a public about any of the women involved in the struggle outside of Rosa Parks and Angela Davis (and only maybe on Davis for most people) is a sign of just how limited our education about the movement remains.
Richardson was on my list for a full fledged obituary, but alas, she died before I could write it. At least I get to say a few words now.
RIP to one of the greats.