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Civil rights icon Gloria Richardson passes at age 99: 'She was born a leader'

During her life, Gloria Richardson was an unsung civil rights pioneer. Since her death at age 99, she has received an outpour of appreciation.

Civil rights icon Gloria Richardson passes at age 99: 'She was born a leader'
Image Source: (L) timothy.hayes.3990 / Facebook (R) BlackLivesMatterSac / Facebook

In the 1960s, Gloria Richardson was the first individual to lead a prolonged grassroots civil rights movement just outside the Deep South in the United States. Unfortunately, on Thursday, July 15, the civil rights icon passed away at the age of 99. She died in her sleep in New York City. She had not been ill. According to her granddaughter Tya Young, much of what exists of the Black Lives Matter movement today originates from the Cambridge Movement. Most notably, Richardson, who never wanted recognition for her efforts, gained popularity when she was captured in a photograph pushing away the bayonet of a National Guardsman, Associated Press reports.


The civil rights leader organized and led the Cambridge Movement on the state of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. She planned and executed sit-ins with the intention of desegregating restaurants, bowling alleys, and movie theaters in protests. The demonstrations she organized marked an early part of the Black Power movement. Young explained that her grandmother never wished for praise or recognition. "She did it because it needed to be done," she affirmed. "And she was born a leader." Joseph R. Fitzgerald, who wrote a 2018 biography on Richardson titled The Struggle is Eternal: Gloria Richardson and Black Liberation, also recognized her efforts.


He stated, "I say that the Cambridge Movement was the soil in which Richardson planted a seed of Black power and nurtured its growth. Everything that the Black Lives Matter movement is working at right now is a continuation of what the Cambridge Movement was doing." Richardson quickly rose to the forefront of movements regarding "bread and butter economic issues" such as jobs, health care access, and sufficient housing for Black folks. In pursuit of these targets, she fought for the rights of Black to defend themselves when attacked. "Richardson always supported the use of nonviolent direct action during protests," Fitzgerald explained. "But once the protests were over and if Black people were attacked by whites she fully supported their right to defend themselves."


She was born in Baltimore and later lived in Cambridge in Maryland’s Dorchester County, which is also fellow civil rights leader Harriet Tubman's birthplace. At the age of 16, Richardson was admitted to Howard University. When she was in Washington, D.C., she spent her time protesting segregation at a drug store. In the year 1962, she was part of a meeting held by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She later joined the committee. A year later, peaceful sit-ins in Cambridge turned violent and Governor J. Millard Tawes declared martial law. Cambridge Mayor Calvin Mowbray asked Richardson to halt the protests in return for an end to the arrests of Black protesters. She declined. Soon, White supremacists began rioting and Tawes called in the National Guard.


During this time, Richardson met with United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy so as to negotiate what went on to become informally known as the “Treaty of Cambridge.” As per the treaty, Black folks were granted equal access to public accommodations in Cambridge in exchange for a year-long moratorium period on demonstrations. Although she had signed the treaty, Richardson had never agreed to end the demonstrations. At the local level, only the Civil Rights Act of 1964 resolved much of the issues Black communities were protesting for. That same year, she went on to stand on stage at the pivotal March on Washington as one of six women listed as “fighters for freedom” on the program (she was only permitted to say "hello" before the mic was snatched away from her).


"She was only active for approximately three years, but during that time she was literally front and center in a high-stakes Black liberation campaign, and she’s being threatened," Fitzgerald shared. "She’s got White supremacist terrorists threatening her, calling her house, threatening her with her life." In 1964, Richardson resigned from the Nonviolent Action Committee in Cambridge, Maryland. Following her divorce from her first husband, she married photographer Frank Dandridge and moved to New York. There, she worked numerous jobs, including at the National Council for Negro Women. Undoubtedly, Richardson was one of the nation’s leading women civil rights activists in a movement largely dominated by Black men. She inspired hundreds of younger activists who went on to protest racial inequality in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. Richardson is survived by daughters Donna Orange and Tamara Richardson, and granddaughters Young and Michelle Price.


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