Gloria Richardson: A Pillar of the Black Power Movement
By Sonia R. Myrick
“Hello,” was all she had the chance to say to the hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Washington, D.C., for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, before the microphone was snatched away from her and she was whisked off stage. It probably was a good thing that Gloria Richardson, a key figure in the development of the Black Power Movement, did not get to speak for the two minutes she had been told she’d have that day. She thought the Civil Rights Bill was weak and the NAACP ineffective and likely would have spoken her mind. For a year and half before this march, she had been in the streets of her hometown, leading the fight for desegregation, facing down bayonet-carrying national guardsmen and being tear-gassed. She was not opposed to using violence when necessary, and her blunt, no nonsense approach made some in the larger Civil Rights Movement uncomfortable.
Richardson, named Gloria St. Clair Hayes by her parents John and Mable (neé St. Clair) Hayes, was born on May 6, 1922, in Baltimore, Maryland. Her mother was from a wealthy family with deep roots in Cambridge, Maryland, and during the Great Depression, the family relocated there.
In 1938, at 16 years old, Richardson graduated high school and enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Her time at Howard coincided with the tenure of several of the greatest intellects of the day: Alain Locke, Chair of the Department of Philosophy and first African American Rhodes Scholar, who authored The New Negro; Ralph Bunche, chair of the Department of Political Science and the first Nobel Peace Prize winner of African descent; E. Franklin Frazier, chair of the Department of Sociology; Sterling Allen Brown chair of the Department of English; and Rayford Logan, chair of the Department of History, to name a few.
From them, Richardson would learn how to conduct social research and gain an understanding of social psychology and collective behavior — tools that she would draw on as she led the fight to desegregate Cambridge. Howard University was also where she learned the techniques of civil disobedience as she participated in picketing businesses, like Woolworth’s, in an effort to desegregate public spaces in D.C.
Her path to becoming a pioneer in the Black Power Movement was not by design. After graduating in 1942 with a degree in sociology, she worked in a government job in D.C. for a few years before returning to Cambridge, marrying Harry Richardson, a local teacher, in 1948, and starting a family. When a few Freedom Fighters came to Cambridge in 1961 at the behest of her cousin Frederick St. Clair, it was a few months before she knew they were in town.
At the time, Richardson was putting in long hours running her dad’s pharmacy after his death in 1960. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) helped organize the grammar and high school students — one of whom was Richardson’s oldest daughter — who initiated the civil disobedience in Cambridge. Their demonstrations practically shut down the town and only stopped for a few weeks after they were told that the whites would only negotiate if there was peace.
When there was no movement on that front, Richardson and some of the other parents asked SNCC to help them form an adult group, which became the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee (CNAC). Richardson was asked to take a leadership role in this group because other members thought that she would be better able to withstand retaliation from whites because of her family’s resources.
Richardson was asked to co-lead this group, and CNAC initially focused its efforts on voter registration and the public accommodation issue. However, through a community survey, initiated by Richardson, the top issues became evident: adequate housing and healthcare, and better wages. This survey, which illustrated the deplorable conditions for blacks living in close proximity to the nation’s seat of power (people living in what she describes as literal chicken coops) and highlighted racism as the source of their conditions, gained the attention of the U.S. Attorney General, Robert Kennedy.
Once again, Richardson would hear from someone in the administration that no progress would be made if she and her folks stayed in the streets. They did not back down. They didn’t go looking for trouble, but they also weren’t afraid to take up arms to defend themselves, especially against any whites who chose to terrorize their community at night.
Richardson describes herself as secular, but in the face of danger and death threats, one of her strategies for dealing with the stress was in repeating two things to herself: “If We Must Die,” a poem by Claude McKay written in response to attacks by whites against blacks during the Red Summer of 1919:
If we must die, let it be not like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die…
and Psalm 23 — “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”
The Civil Rights Act passed into law in July 1964, and after being on the front lines of the freedom movement in Cambridge for 18 months and going through a divorce in the midst of it all, Richardson decided to focus on her family. She remarried — to a photographer, Frank Dandridge — and with her youngest daughter, they settled in New York City, where she still resides.
Sonia R. Myrick, a member of McLean Baptist Church in McLean, Virginia, is an editor who resides in Northern Virginia with her husband, daughter and son.