For years I had heard about a feisty woman who successfully stirred up a ruckus over civil rights in Cambridge in 1963. Gov. Millard Tawes saw fit to call up the Maryland National Guard (MDNG) and establish martial law in response to the volatile demonstration in the streets in an Eastern Shore town that gained nationwide notoriety in the turbulent 1960s.
When I joined the MDNG in the 1976, I would hear stories about Gloria Richardson. Resentment about her key role in the 1963 civil rights protests mixed with reluctant admiration for a forceful woman who was shown in an iconic photograph pushing aside a bayonet carried by a Guard soldier.
As I learned during my years in the Guard, riot control was an inglorious and unwelcomed mission. Engaging your fellow citizens while avoiding violence inspired no enthusiasm. It required a firm but fair approach. It called for diplomacy amid chaos.
Gloria Richardson was unafraid. She was downright angry about the treatment of Cambridge’s black citizens. She resisted any efforts by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to control her actions or comments.
I began thinking about the now 98-year-old Richardson after reading a recent Washington Post article about the not so easily forgotten civil rights leader. The interview prompted me to hark back to the incredibly selfless and courageous Harriet Tubman, who was relentless in leading more than 50 Dorchester County slaves living in the Cambridge area to freedom through the Underground Railroad in the mid-19th century.
Back to 1963 and a time of turmoil.
A single woman with two daughters and a graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C., she became incensed about unequal access for blacks in housing, education, jobs and health care. And she acted and spoke fearlessly, much to the distress of white political and black civil rights leaders.
While she sought peaceful resolution of long ingrained mistreatment of Cambridge’s African-American residents, she did not shy away from confrontation. Fires and arrests sometimes resulted. Richardson was arrested three times and received several 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,” according to the Washington Post.
I often wondered why Cambridge, both in 1963 and 1967, became the centerpiece of racial protests on the Eastern Shore. It still carries a stigma from those days, overshadowing significant socioeconomic changes in this small city. Cities like Easton, Salisbury and Crisfield somehow escaped the public ruptures that marked Cambridge.
When Richardson encountered the Guard soldier with the bayonet, her reaction symbolized her disgust for the call-up of Guard troops to quell the protests. She understood, as do most military experts, that a show of force can often exacerbate tensions and encourage dangerously provocative behavior on the part of citizens who indeed are disrupting public space.
To calm the violent protests, Attorney General Kennedy strangely submitted a proposal requiring Cambridge residents to vote for the right of access to public accommodations. Richardson rightly and bravely urged black citizens to boycott the vote.
The right to use public facilities was a given, as far as Richardson was concerned, and requiring black residents to seek treatment as first-class citizens was insulting.
Her anti-vote decision irritated the attorney general, his brother, the President, and Dr. King. They believed that the voters would approve the proposition and thus end the violence.
Were I then part of the white power structure, I suspect I too would have found Gloria Richardson a terrible nuisance and powerful woman, to boot. In hindsight, I think she was absolutely correct. Human rights are not black or white or brown. At another time, unfortunately, these rights were determined to be white prerogatives bestowed upon American citizens viewed as second-class residents.
Richardson remained part of the civil rights movement until the Civil Rights Act was signed in June 1964 by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. She married Frank Dandridge, a Life Magazine photographer, and moved to New York.
Beside telling the story about her impressive actions in 1963-64 in a small, hitherto unknown Eastern Shore city on the Choptank River in Dorchester County, the Washington Post article portrayed the 98-year-old Richardson as equally resolute and unyielding today about the fight for racial justice.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.