Cambridge, Maryland in Dorchester County was home to Harriet Tubman and one of the points of departure for the Underground Railroad. Her legacy was long honored in the town’s black community; it was a legacy reborn with renewed meaning in the 1960s when Cambridge stood at the center of civil rights struggles. And in the center of those struggles was Gloria Richardson, leader of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee (CNAC), an adult organization affiliated with SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) as part of a movement that, from 1960 forward, engaged in ever more militant direct action to end segregation, to protect and expand voting rights, end poverty and make real the promise of freedom.
Richardson, who attended Howard University in DC in the 1940s, was a member of one of the more well-off families in Cambridge’s black community. It is a telling reminder of how the racial caste system functioned that, nonetheless, she still worked 10-12 hour days at her family’s drug store to earn enough money to raise two daughters. Her understanding of the systemic barriers that locked blacks into second-class citizenship was reflected in her approach to organizing in which demands for integration took place in the context of demands for political empowerment – i.e. Black Power – and demands for economic justice. That this movement had broad support and grew in strength year by year notwithstanding repression, notwithstanding all attempts at accommodation that left the system of racial disparity unchanged, speaks to the deep chord it struck amongst those who had been kept down for far too long.
Her leadership began in February 1962 when civil disobedience and mass protests to integrate restaurants and other private businesses were met with violence by white counter-demonstrators. The depth of the violence came as a surprise to all sides, for Cambridge had projected itself as moderate, as a community with good race relations, and certainly in no way comparable to the deep South. Yet, although blacks had voting rights and representation on the town council going back decades, resistance to change by the majority of whites was uncompromising. The existence of a black middle class with its own institutions, with elected officials and some access to the local elite was a source of strength as it allowed for a degree of independence and sets of relationships that, for example, the black community did not have in Hattiesburg, Mississippi or Albany, Georgia. Yet at the same time those relationships also produced a politics that sought to avoid confrontation, a politics of “incrementalism,” that left the caste divide in place. It was a politics that was caught between desire for and fear of radical change. It was a combination providing the context within which the radical posture developed by Richardson took shape.
After that first wave of protests, CNAC focused on organizing within the black community through small workshops, mass meetings, voter registration. They canvassed the African American community in order to get a clear sense of what the local civil rights movement’s priorities should be. Based on that, CNAC organizers came to see that the demand for good jobs, for quality housing was most important for those trapped in want – which was the majority. That demand was on par with the demand for integration. In a sense, the desire for an end to segregation, the assertion of black pride, and the cry for economic justice all had one common element – the right to live in dignity. Recognizing the interrelations of all these grew out of another aspect of Richardson’s approach to organizing – CNAC was one of the very few civil rights organizations in the early 1960s that drew in working-class members of the community, that brought the poor and those without formal education into its leadership. It is not a coincidence that it was also one of the few organizations with women leadership at all levels, amplifying their voices rather than relegating them to do the work silently.
By the end of 1962 the number and militancy of sit-ins and direct protests began to again grow, as did the violence of counter demonstrators. And, although CNAC adopted the posture of non-violence in its protests, it did not extend that to non-resistance – the urban poor fought back against white violence with fists, rocks and guns; conflicts intensified up through to May 1963, rooted in refusal to accept unmet demands for justice. As it became increasingly impossible to paper over differences, the national guard was twice called in and for nearly a year, Cambridge was under martial law.
Likely because of the nearness of Cambridge to Washington DC, the Kennedy Administration became directly involved in trying to resolve the tensions, particularly as preparations for the March on Washington that August were underway. Robert Kennedy led negotiations for the White House, Richardson for the community. An agreement was eventually reached, but only after she made clear that integration was a means to a greater goal: a shift in political power and change that people could see in their everyday life. In the final settlement, CNAC agreed to suspend protests, while local authorities agreed to change the town charter to end legal discrimination. This step was then followed by Ocean City and other Eastern Shore communities, and for many mainstream liberals and conservatives in the business community, as well as those in media and political circles, that should have led to a return to normalcy. But they failed to recognize that for Richardson and others in CNAC, the goal was substantive,not purely symbolic change – and failed to recognize that the beast of white racism, once unleashed, was hard to put back in its box.
That reality became clear when “states’ rights” advocates, objecting to what they denounced as government interference with private property, but clearly animated by opposition to racial justice in any form, called for a public referendum to oppose the charter revision. A central business association joined anti-civil rights groups in mobilizing opposition to the measure – in the process also posing a challenge to traditional business centers in Cambridge which sought to moderate and control what they recognized as inevitable change. Those moderates supporting the agreement had the support of mainstream black institutions, the churches, the NAACP and others who saw in the agreement an unqualified victory and thus mobilized to defeat the resolution.
Richardson, however, refused to do so – and under her leadership, CNAC took a position of neutrality. She did support voting in local, state and national elections, but argued that the proposed referendum was different. Her logic was based on principle: fundamental human rights should not be subject to a vote; they are inalienable and should be recognized as such. Behind that lay another concern: a focus on the vote would take away attention from economic injustice and would make integration seem the end point of the struggle, rather than as a stepping stone. In taking this position, she also took a position against unity at any cost within the civil rights movement, arguing that doing so would leave black workers out of the equation, would mean accepting the authority and power of the white power structure. Her resistance to calls for unity that excluded the urban poor, her rejection of trying to win a “victory” at any price was rooted in the belief that it would be counterproductive, if it came at the cost of political independence. CNAC, an increasing number of people in SNCC, in CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and other activists, refused to give up the politics of direct action to produce change that would benefit the entire community, in the belief that only a politics that combined rights with justice would lay the basis for a genuine unity.
The referendum was successful; the negotiated city charter was turned down with a wide majority of white voters signaling their opposition to “forced” integration – and protests demanding equality resumed. The intractability of those who could not accept equality was again emphasized in May 1964 when George Wallace ran in the Democratic Party primary for president to register his opposition to Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights program – Wallace spoke to a packed hall in Cambridge of cheering supporters, while RIchardson led a protest demonstration outside the hall. When the primary vote totals were counted, Wallace won the overwhelming majority of the white vote throughout the Eastern Shore, and came close to winning the Maryland vote (laying the basis for his 1968 primary campaign).
Soon thereafter, Richardson left Cambridge, maintaining her principles and politics, but henceforth outside the limelight. Meanwhile passage of the federal Civil Rights Act did bring to an end legal segregation, opening up movie theaters, restaurants, and public spaces to blacks. With that came real changes, meaningful over time, in allowing people to interact with each other, opening up possibilities that had not previously existed. But the underlying conditions of inadequate housing, schools, job opportunities remained along with an undisguised racism which brought renewed violence to Cambridge following a speech by H. Rap Brown (he later changed his name to Amil Abdullah Al-Amin and is now serving a life sentence for murder of a police officer based on charges many veterans of the civil rights community judged false). Like elsewhere in the country, renewed militancy thereafter was unable to sustain itself, and so the realities of racial injustice, and class inequity continue to exist. Stability returned, based on something better than what had existed, but far less that what could be, what needs to be.
Because of her leadership role in the civil rights movement, Richardson was one of six women invited to sit on the stage at the March on Washington in 1963 along with Rosa Parks, Diane Nash Bevel, Daisy Bates, Paris Lee, Myrlie Evers – though neither she nor any woman was allowed to give a speech that day. Their presence served as a recognition of the centrality of women in building the movement for Black freedom from the ground up, while their absence from the speaker’s podium underscored the fact that they were still too often excluded from formal leadership bodies in which their presence was needed.
Richardson’s focus on doing the actual work of building a movement is one reason why she is so little-remembered today despite the central role she played then (and the same is true of other women who did much of the on-ground community organizing North and South). But there is another reason – the kind of politics she represented doesn’t fit easily in conventional narratives, doesn’t fit easily in personalized accounts that separate movements from objectives and prefer symbols to substance. She – and local activists in communities across the country – saw early on the contradictions that King, Malcolm X and others would run into: the difficulty of turning the substance of integration, the substance of assertions of black pride into real power that could bring about genuine equality, genuine justice, and a genuinely better life.
Maryland proved to be a bellwether state. On one side, there was the transformation of the Republican Party, its past role – as the party of business interests that often did support social rights even when opposed to economic rights – proving to be untenable. More and more powerful business groups saw the way to control power only through suppressing popular rights in all manifestations – be it in the shape of racial justice, woman’s rights, immigrant rights or unionism. Spiro Agnew, elected Maryland governor in 1966 as a moderate Republican, became an outspoken right-wing “law-and-order” Republican as Richard Nixon’s Vice President in 1968, symbolizing that shift. Wallace’s supporters – whose strength in the Democratic Party was evident in his 1964 and 1968 Maryland primary results – were soon to – in the main – become Republicans. The Democratic Party, in turn, moved in a different direction, becoming the party through which business interests sought to ameliorate social conflict through acceptance of measures of reform, while also serving as the party through which organizations promoting social, racial, economic justice found a home. But the tension remained and remains still between those who want to allow rights to increase incrementally – and thus never be fully realized – and those, such as Richardson, who remain committed to full and genuine justice in all phases of life.
Many of those who so opposed civil rights, who supported George Wallace – like many of those who today support Donald Trump – perceived themselves as opposing economic elites in their opposition to racial justice, despite the fact that neither Wallace or Trump or any demagogue in between ever put forth policies that made the wealthy less wealthy or the already powerful, less powerful. True, some once-dominant interests in the food processing industry ceased to be as dominant in Cambridge’s local politics – a change already underway because of changes in the industry and an end of local isolation after the building of the Bay Bridge that socialists had advocated in the 1930s. But they retained their property and influence in society.
Acceptance of racist demagoguery is, as it has ever been, a form of subservience to the existing order and of the capitalist system which all workers are treated as disposable commodities, only modified to the extent workers are organized. That subservience stands in direct contrast to the choices made by those who challenge the injustices around us at the roots. In her refusal to accept being subjected to the indignities of racism, Richardson never compromised her integrity or her assertion that human rights must be recognized as rights of all, not as gifts of charity from some.
This was evident in the arenas where she did see progress, where she did advance unity formed on a principled basis. Richardson, for example, became a strong supporter of the progressive, multiracial Packinghouse Workers (UPWA) – speaking at their Convention 1964, as the union was winning an organizing drive at canneries in Cambridge and elsewhere on the Eastern Shore. Union organizing was viewed unfavorably by economic elites – and those whose moderation accepted that elite’s approach to civil rights – because they defined stability as low wages and insecurity for those who labor. Her rejection of that moderation and strong support for the UPWA may shed some light on why she rejected unity when such unity threatened the link between social rights and economic rights. It was that logic that moved her politics closer to the perspective put forth by Malcolm X, especially after he left the Nation of Islam. A sense of what might have been can be imagined when recalling a strategy meeting initiated by Malcolm shortly before his assassination attended by Richardson along with others holding similar views, including Julius Hobson, a community activist in CORE and co-founder of the Statehood Party – now Statehood/Greens – in DC who was also a committed socialist and one-time vice presidential candidate on the People’s Party ticket in 1972. Like Richardson he linked the struggle for black freedom to the struggle for worker rights, the struggle for worker rights to the struggle for black freedom.
Gloria Richardson could be judged a failure – just like Elizabeth Gilman, Pat Whelan (written about in two previous issues of the Washington Socialist), their friends, their colleagues, their comrades. The causes they fought for remain causes for which we must still organize. All of them, though once prominent, are largely forgotten – certainly their names don’t come up in high school or college classes or even in most histories of popular protest beyond perhaps a fleeting line or two. But then again, none of them were engaged with the idea in mind of fame or power – rather all in their very different ways sought to find meaning by living life according to their beliefs. And in their different ways, those beliefs led each to seek a path to bring immediate change to improve the lives of people around them without abandoning the goal of fundamental change in the structure of society such that people would not live in need. And all of them understood that change, both immediate and fundamental, required action built upon solidarity. As we face the complexities of organizing in today’s world while confronting political complexities alongside the all-too-real dangers of Trump, of racist police violence, the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, the ever-present danger of war, the ever-present reality of poverty and oppression – Richardson, Gilman and Whelan should be remembered and should inspire as we learn from those who came before.