July 21, 1963: When a National Guardsman poked his bayonet at Gloria Richardson in Cambridge, Maryland, she pushed it away, refusing to back down during protests against racism and inequality.
The image of Gloria Richardson, head of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee, taking a courageous stand appeared in newspapers around the world. Her actions also inspired change. Two days later, she and others signed the Treaty of Cambridge in the office of U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy to address desegregation, housing and employment inequities. The victory came after a quarter century of struggle.
Richardson grew up in segregated Cambridge, where the communities were literally separated by a street named Race. She began her activism while a Howard University student, protesting segregated seating at Woolworth’s lunch counters. In 1962, she and others created the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee to aid the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s efforts to break down the barriers that barred Black residents from decent jobs, housing and health care.
When Black residents began protests because of the discriminatory treatment in the city, White residents hurled eggs at the protesters, who became targets of violence when nightriders, white terrorist groups, attempted to bomb their homes. Richardson encouraged protesters to defend themselves. After two white men were wounded in a shootout with Black protesters, the governor sent in the National Guard, which stayed in the city for nearly a year. Richardson continued to stand up against them.
“It got very scary, with the threats against us, and with whites coming through the Black community, shooting,” her daughter, Donna R. Orange, told The New York Times. “She just marched right past them.”
Although Richardson signed the Treaty of Cambridge, she didn’t support the document in public.
“Why would we agree to submit to have our civil rights granted by vote when they were ours already, according to the Constitution?” she said. Richardson became a national symbol, one of six women listed as “fighters for freedom” at the March on Washington program.
Fearing that she was becoming an icon, Richardson stepped back from leadership, but not before her example inspired such activists as former SNCC chairman Stokely Carmichael, who used the term “Black Power” during movement rallies.
“They looked to Ms. Richardson as the sort of uncompromising Black radical leader they should emulate,” Joseph R. Fitzgerald, author of “The Struggle Is Eternal: Gloria Richardson and Black Liberation,” told the Times. In the book, Richardson described her strategy in fighting the forces opposing good: “If everything else doesn’t work, then I think you should make it uncomfortable for them to exist. You have to be in their faces ’til it gets uncomfortable for politicians and corporate leaders to keep opposing activists’ demands.”
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