Gloria Richardson passed away on July 15, 2021, at the age of 99. Tributes have already poured in for the Black freedom movement icon. The Washington Post referred to Richardson as a “firebrand civil rights activist.” Having come first to prominence in the early 1960s as a result of a civil rights campaign in her hometown of Cambridge, Maryland, Richardson’s life and legacy should be seen in light of two critical intellectual topics: the radicalism of the Civil Rights and Black Nationalist movements of the 1960s, and the importance of African American women to both movements before, during, and after the 1960s.
At Black Perspectives, Richardson has been the central figure in several blog posts—namely, those that have dealt with the ever-changing contours of civil rights and Black Power historiography historians continue to argue about. In an excerpt from his book on Richardson’s life, titled The Struggle is Eternal: Gloria Richardson and Black Liberation, Joseph R. Fitzgerald wrote that her life “broadens our view of political leadership and intellectualism beyond the male-centric scholarly interpretations of 1960s black protest.” Fitzgerald’s book fits a larger movement in the historiography of civil rights, Black Power, and Black intellectual history that wants to move away from the traditional narratives—not to completely ignore them, but instead to add to those narratives and complicate them in response to recent advances in research and interpretation.
Richardson matters as much more than a point of interest in debates about historiography. She was a human being who grew and changed in the public spotlight in a way most people never do. That she did so against the backdrop of a fierce flashpoint in the Civil Rights Movement is all the more remarkable. When Richardson took on a leadership role with the Cambridge struggle in the early 1960s, she was already in her early 40s. She does not fit the model associated with so many key figures of the era—late 20s to early 30s, and male. But her impact was felt well beyond the borders of Cambridge, Maryland.
Cambridge, Maryland itself offers a challenge to traditional civil rights narratives. The campaign for freedom in Cambridge required the presence of the National Guard for eighteen months—before the “long, hot summers” that characterized the late 1960s, or the ongoing violence that Elizabeth Hinton has written about that plagued American cities into the 1980s. The participation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the Cambridge Movement helped to spur the fight along, but Richardson’s leadership held the movement together until 1964 when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.
In 1974 Ebony magazine ran a profile on Richardson, asking “Whatever Happened to Gloria Richardson?” Referred to as the “lady general of the civil rights struggle in Cambridge,” Richardson had come to represent the early ideological tightrope many activists had come to walk during the 1960s and early 1970s. By 1974, her confrontational style in Cambridge—which included advocating for both civil disobedience and armed self-defense—seemed perfectly in tune with what the Black Panther Party and other radical organizations had become known for. But questions of how debates over tactics and strategy for the Civil Rights and Black Power movements changed over time must include people like Richardson, Robert F. Williams, and so many others.
Richardson, of course, did not stop having opinions about the issues of racism and discrimination in society after she willingly left the spotlight—and Cambridge, Maryland itself—in 1964. In an oral history interview done in 2014 for the book Lighting the Fires of Freedom African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement, Richardson commented on the challenges facing protestors against police violence and brutality that would become the Black Lives Matter movement. Criticizing the idea that change could only happen through voting, Richardson told author Janet Dewart Bell, “I mean, you don’t go vote when people have their foot on your neck.”
That analysis—a critique of the effectiveness of voting to create social change—was long part of Richardson’s worldview. As historians, we would do well to consider how this critique has been a key part of the long history of Black freedom struggles in American history. Richardson is but one example of this tradition. This would likely explain her support for the confrontational attitude of Black Lives Matter, and their critique of the current power structure of politics, voting, and reliance on the Democratic Party.
It should also be noted that Richardson’s activism did not start in the 1960s. As a student at Howard University in the late 1930s, she participated in demonstrations against a local drug store that did not hire African American workers. In that sense, Richardson herself was an embodiment of the idea of the “long civil rights movement,” combining as she did the different radical traditions of the New Deal and Great Society eras into an effective movement for change and progress in Cambridge, Maryland. But Richardson herself represented the intellectual complexities of a movement that had to adjust to conditions on the ground as they were—whether it was Cambridge, Maryland; Albany, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; Chicago, Illinois; or Oakland, California. The centrality of Black women to campaigns for Black freedom is also seen in Richardson’s biography, as is the refusal of Black men, time and again, to recognize them for their leadership and importance. Richardson was one of several Black women not allowed to speak at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, despite her critical leadership in Cambridge.
It is an especially sad irony that Richardson died on the evening before the anniversary of the death of John Lewis, who passed away on July 17, 2020. Both represented the long legacy of Black freedom struggles in American and African American history. While Richardson and Lewis came to be icons of different ideological and intellectual responses to white supremacy, they were united by a deeper belief in the need to fight against racism, discrimination, and hopelessness—and for the need to create a better, more loving, more just society.