Whether or not you know it, you have likely seen Gloria Richardson Dandridge before. You have seen the famous photo of her in protest, standing tall while pushing a gun out of her face. You have seen her give a look of disgust more devastating than any blow. You have seen her resolve, and her fearlessness. And whether or not you knew who she was or where she was, you undoubtedly knew at least one thing: This is a woman who knows how to stand in her power.
The legacy Richardson built in the fight for equality is one of persistence, perseverance, and passion. Born in 1922, Richardson grew up in Cambridge, Maryland —among the few areas of the U.S. that wasn’t entirely under the reign of Jim Crow’s terror. But his influence still loomed large, and Richardson grew up surrounded by the evidence. Maryland’s Eastern Shore, with connections to abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, overflowed with paradoxes. Blacks in Cambridge, unlike their brothers and sisters in Mississippi or Alabama, freely exercised their right to vote but couldn’t use any of the city’s public accommodations. Despite the fact that Richardson’s family included prosperous business owners and respected community members, her grandfather, a city councilman who represented the Black section of town, was not allowed to attend social events with his white colleagues. As Richardson recalls, this exclusion angered her grandmother, but her grandfather chalked it up to the social order of the day.
Richardson went on to graduate from Howard University, one of the most prestigious of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). But from a young age, Richardson knew that neither her college degree, nor her family’s privileges, nor their navigation of the color line in Cambridge would provide protection or relief. When her father had a heart attack, he died because of a lack of medical care for blacks near their home. Racism was a matter of life and death, and when Richardson became involved with Civil Rights organizations in the 1960s, she quickly learned that fighting white supremacy meant sacrificing her emotional well-being and putting herself at risk of physical harm.
When the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) visited Cambridge in 1961, Richardson was already half a generation older than the mostly college-aged members—but she was inspired by their efforts and actions. As she witnessed youth confronting the police and refusing to post bail after being arrested in order to protest a corrupt system, Richardson committed herself to deepening her political knowledge and her own leadership. She also found herself drawn closer to activism by her daughter, Donna. Through witnessing various demonstrations in support of her daughter’s activism, Richardson struggled to remain silent in the face of the rabid counter-protestors that jeered and jostled non-violent Civil Rights groups.
Richardson, who ran her family’s businesses at the time, decided to become a student again. She attended workshops and special sessions where activists methodically trained themselves to withstand the pure hatred of mobs that used everything from slurs to fists in order to keep protestors from peaceful gatherings, where they demanded what was supposed to be secured by the Constitution. While co-chairing the local Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee, Richardson learned about who she could or could not trust in the process of negotiating the expansion of black rights in Cambridge. She attended SNCC meetings in other cities, and while her efforts were supported, the paradoxes of Cambridge made it difficult for people to realize the depth of Richardson’s tasks and the chaos that would befall the town. Nevertheless, the forces she was up against were as insidious and violent as those that made Selma, AL a household name.
Soon, Richardson became the head of the Cambridge Movement, a multigenerational initiative that dispatched research teams throughout the community to survey black poverty and, with the help of then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to ensure that resources flowed into the town. They also organized mass boycotts to ensure blacks not only gained equal access to shops, but were also hired into badly needed positions. The Movement strained the nerves of Cambridge’s white powerbrokers, and her “allies,” as well: Richardson’s bold leadership and her refusal to concede to the demands of civil rights notables outside of her community made her a target of criticism. National NAACP leadership minimized the problems in Cambridge, perhaps fearing that Richardson’s expert organizing would detract from their own priorities. Martin Luther King, Jr. underestimated her impact, too.
By the summer of 1963, despite the setbacks and the criticisms, Richardson remained committed. Richardson initiated a series of negotiations with Robert Kennedy about the federal government’s responsibility to help Cambridge residents come out from under Jim Crow. Dubbed The Treaty of Cambridge, local activists secured victories in resources for public housing, the protection of voting rights, and the establishment of a body to investigate Civil Rights violations. Cambridge’s wins demonstrated how a combination of direct action protest and data could help bring resources to communities—and that a woman could be at the lead of all of it. But change was slow to come, as was recognition for Richardson’s savvy.
National publications wrote stories about why she was foolish to oppose a citywide referendum that allowed Cambridge citizens to vote on equal access to accommodations and housing. But Richardson didn’t trust her white neighbors with deciding on the rights of the black community, and ultimately, she was right: The referendum was overwhelmingly shot down.
While labor organizations, interfaith organizations, and Civil Rights groups planned what would become the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Cambridge was embroiled in an intensifying backlash against their protests. But these efforts to intimidate activists did not work. The governor had dispatched the National Guard to intimidate and discourage protestors; it did not work. Hundreds of demonstrators were jailed, but it did not stop protests as organizers returned to the streets as soon as they were released. White citizens even invited Alabama’s segregation mouthpiece, former governor George Wallace, to speak to like-minded members and supporters of the Ku Klux Klan’s public affiliate, the White Citizens Council. After Wallace’s fiery pro-segregation speech, chaos erupted in the streets between demonstrators, pro-segregationists, and National Guardsmen. After Richardson tried to clear children picketers from the streets, where tanks had lined up in front of the crowds, a cloud began to form overhead. Tear gas had been launched into the summer sky, and the gas seeped into homes across the town. The attack ultimately claimed two lives, but did not kill the spirit of the movement.
Richardson’s bravery on the night of the gas attack and her continued work in Cambridge may have made her a candidate for praise and celebration to some, but to others, she was blamed for pushing for too much too fast. The former opinion likely inspired her selection as an honoree at the March on Washington on August 22, 1963—a solemn gathering to reflect on 50 years since the abolition of slavery. She had her doubts, however: Before she arrived, she was told that she couldn’t wear jeans to the event. For Richardson and other SNCC members, wearing jeans represented their solidarity with the rural poor, and it was the default uniform when they boycotted department stores for maintaining segregation. In a rare moment of compromise, she arrived to the event in a jean skirt—figuring that would suffice. Eventually, as Richardson waited to be escorted up to the platform to speak for her allotted one minute of what would become the most important Civil Rights demonstration in U.S. history, she realized that she had been left behind. When March organizer Bayard Rustin discovered her, it was too late. Richardson’s seat on the dais—which was supposed to be next to performers Lena Horne and Josephine Baker—was missing. Richardson believed the aversion to her radicalism and the pressure to toe a party line, even at a Civil Rights rally, led to her being shut out. She was irritated, but not defeated. After finding a place to sit on the platform stage, Richardson was allowed to say, “Hello,” to the crowd of more than 250,000, before her microphone was cut.
The March on Washington did not end Richardson’s battle for Civil Rights. After securing a few victories for blacks on the Eastern Shore, she moved to New York City and pursued new interests and passions, working with youth, the elderly, and community programs. Her silencing at the March represents the many voices that were quieted because of sexism, because of class conflicts, and because of mistrust in movements. Fortunately, Richardson continues to tell about her experiences even today, and at 96 years old, she is a living reminder of the complexities of the Civil Rights movement and the stories that we must pursue.
Unafraid to criticize icons of the movement, Richardson continues to hold fast to the belief that we are the ones we have been waiting for. As she told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, “[People today], I think they’re waiting for somebody, some preacher, to rise up in the middle and save them. I don’t think they understand that they can go out and make mistakes and do it themselves.”
Dr. Marcia Chatelain is a scholar, speaker, and strategist based in Washington, D.C. She teaches courses in African American life and culture at Georgetown University.