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Gloria Richardson, Uncompromising Civil Rights Advocate, Dies at 99

Gloria Richardson

By Clay Risen, New York Times

Gloria Richardson, whose work as a civil rights leader on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the early 1960s served as a bridge between the nonviolent activism of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the more radical, confrontational tactics and agendas of the Black Power movement that followed in the second half of the decade, died on July 15 at her home in Manhattan. She was 99.

Her granddaughter Tya Young confirmed her death.

In 1962, Ms. Richardson was a 40-year-old housewife in Cambridge, Md., a member of a prosperous Black family in a part of the country that straddled — and blurred — the line between the Jim Crow segregation of the South and the less restricted but still unequal life of Black people in the North.

In Cambridge, Black residents could order food at restaurants, but they couldn’t sit down. They could vote, but the schools and neighborhoods remained segregated. With the closing of the area’s largest employer, a meatpacking company, Black unemployment had shot up to 30 percent, compared with 7 percent among whites.

Student activists had already begun to mount sit-ins and boycotts of local businesses when Ms. Richardson joined the movement that summer, spurred on by her teenage daughter Donna, who was one of the protesters.

Ms. Richardson was a Howard University-trained sociologist, and one of her first efforts was to survey the needs of the Black community. Desegregation, she found, was relatively low on the list; what people most wanted was better housing, jobs and health care.

In the spring of 1963, Ms. Richardson and a friend traveled to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee headquarters in Atlanta to ask permission to establish an adult offshoot of the group, which they called the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee. Ms. Richardson became its co-chairwoman and its most visible member.

Over the next few months the protests — and the white backlash to them — grew heated. During the day, whites bombarded civil rights protesters with eggs, and at night they pelted their homes with Molotov cocktails.

Unlike many Southern civil rights leaders, and despite her organization’s name, Ms. Richardson did not demand a nonviolent response. She encouraged Cambridge’s Black residents to defend themselves. Gunfights became increasingly common, and on June 11, two whites were wounded in a shootout.

The governor of Maryland, J. Millard Tawes, a Democrat, sent in the National Guard. When the soldiers withdrew on July 8, violence erupted immediately. The guard returned four days later, and stayed for over a year.

Ms. Richardson quickly attracted national media attention both for her uncompromising politics and her charismatic public image. Almost always dressed in high-waisted jeans and a white blouse, she strode fearlessly past white supremacists and armed guardsmen alike — in one memorable photo, she seems to casually brush aside a bayonet-tipped rifle on her way to address a group of protesters.

“It got very scary, with the threats against us, and with whites coming through the Black community, shooting,” said her daughter Donna R. Orange. “She just marched right past them.”

Ms. Richardson spent several weeks negotiating with local, state and federal authorities, including Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who urged her to accept a deal — a plan for desegregation and federal housing aid, matched with a one-year moratorium on protests.

Ms. Richardson signed a deal, nicknamed the Treaty of Cambridge, but refused to support it in public, in part because the desegregation plank required a referendum vote.

“Why would we agree to submit to have our civil rights granted by vote when they were ours already, according to the Constitution?” she later told the journalist Jeff Kisseloff.

At her urging, the city’s Black population mostly sat out the vote, while the city’s whites, spurred on by pro-segregation business leaders, voted overwhelmingly against the plan, and it lost.

Ms. Richardson was invited to speak at the March on Washington in August 1963, though organizers balked when she showed up in her trademark jeans. She compromised on a jean skirt. Not long before Dr. King’s address, she rose to the microphone to speak, but was cut off after saying “hello,” apparently for fear that she would say something off message.

Protests in Cambridge continued into 1964, though in deference to the attorney general, whose brother President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in November 1963, Ms. Richardson muted her street-level activism. She became the co-founder of an organization, Act, that pushed for systemic change and economic justice in the North.

Ms. Richardson was heartened by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which not only enforced desegregation but also tackled job discrimination and education. By then, she had decided to step back from the Cambridge movement, in part because of the stress but also because she was wary of becoming an icon — better, she said, for new leaders to take over.

And they did. Her departure coincided with the coming of a new generation of activists like Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers, who looked past the reformist efforts of Dr. King and others to embrace the sort of change that Ms. Richardson had emphasized.

“They looked to Ms. Richardson as the sort of uncompromising Black radical leader they should emulate,” Joseph R. Fitzgerald, an associate professor of history at Cabrini University, in Radnor, Pa., and the author of “The Struggle Is Eternal: Gloria Richardson and Black Liberation,” said in an interview. “She showed that you shouldn’t settle for half a loaf of bread. You should take it all.”

Gloria St. Clair Hayes was born in Baltimore on May 6, 1922, and moved with her family to Cambridge when she was 6. Her father, John Hayes, owned a pharmacy and her mother, Mabel St. Clair, was a housewife.

The St. Clairs were one of the wealthiest and most influential Black families in Maryland. Her grandfather, Herbert St. Clair, was the first Black member of the Cambridge City Council.

Ms. Hayes entered Howard University, in Washington, at 16, and graduated in 1942 with a degree in sociology. While in college she was active in local civil rights protests, leading efforts to desegregate a Woolworth’s in downtown Washington.

After working for the federal government, she returned to Cambridge. Despite her degree, her career prospects were slim; the local office of the Maryland Department of Social Services refused to hire Black people into anything but clerical jobs.

In 1944 she married Harry Richardson, a teacher. They later divorced. Along with her granddaughter Tya Young, she is survived by her daughters, Ms. Orange and Tamara Richardson; another granddaughter, Michelle Price; and a great-grandson.

In 1964 she married Frank Dandridge, a freelance photographer, and moved to New York City. There she spent several years working for Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, a nonprofit, and later for the city’s Department for the Aging.

Though she had stepped away from the national stage, Ms. Richardson kept up with civil rights activism, and with Cambridge, returning every year to visit family and friends. She also kept a skeptical eye on the state of America’s racial progress — but also held on to a hope that younger generations would follow her uncompromising stance toward injustice and the people who support it.

“If everything else doesn’t work, then I think you should make it uncomfortable for them to exist,” she told Mr. Fitzgerald in an interview for his book. “You have to be in their faces ’til it gets uncomfortable for politicians and corporate leaders to keep opposing activists’ demands.”

This article originally appeared on New York Times.

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