Her fierce determination overcame his fearsome weapon.
In one of the most famous images of the civil rights era, Gloria Richardson pushed away a bayonet-tipped rifle held inches from her face by a white National Guardsman at a 1963 protest in Cambridge, Md. Her expression is one of annoyance, as if an uninvited child has dipped into her business — and Richardson’s business was liberating Black people from white supremacy.
Last week, Richardson died in New York at the age of 99. That the dramatic photo was better known than the uncompromising woman at its center never bothered her. Despite history’s capricious memory about the urgency of Black women’s activism during the civil rights movement, she “didn’t feel marginalized,” according to her biographer.
“She knew that Black America knew about her and what she had done. She knew exactly who she was and what her role was in being ‘a servant to her race,’ ” said Joseph R. Fitzgerald, author of “The Struggle is Eternal: Gloria Richardson and Black Liberation,” published in 2018. “In the Black political vernacular, she was a race woman. She knew that she was supposed to use her knowledge, skills, and abilities to do whatever she could to advance Black liberation. She was in it for the greater good, not for fame, fortune, or a career.”
In the early 1960s, Richardson led the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee, a spinoff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, with unyielding conviction. Ebony magazine anointed her “the lady general of civil rights,” and Dick Gregory, the comedian and activist, called Richardson “undoubtedly the strongest woman to emerge in the civil rights movement.”
When a referendum on Black people’s access to public accommodations was on the Maryland ballot, in 1963, Richardson boycotted it. Despite widespread criticism from fellow activists, she argued, “A first-class citizen does not beg for freedom. A first-class citizen does not plead to the white power structure to give him something the whites have no power to give or take away.”
“She would not compromise on Black people’s rights,” said Fitzgerald, an associate history and political science professor and Black studies program coordinator at Cabrini University in Pennsylvania. “That was the line in the sand for her.”
That iron will didn’t sit well with many men in the civil rights movement who harbored sexist attitudes. Richardson and other women balked at the “politics of respectability” that dictated how they should behave in public, Fitzgerald said. At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Richardson could only utter “Hello” before the microphone was snatched away. Men could be decisive and strong; women were expected to be quiet and deferential.
That meant that the movement’s women, if not redacted from history entirely, were certainly diminished. Most of us were taught that Rosa Parks was a seamstress too tired after a long day to move to the back of the bus. When Parks died in 2005, The New York Times called her “the accidental matriarch of the civil rights movement,” as if she’d stumbled into history’s spotlight.
That’s nonsense. An NAACP member and secretary, Parks fought for Black equality before and after she refused to give a white man her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955. She was an intentional catalyst for the year-long boycott that forced the bus company to drop its Jim Crow policies for riders.
In her book, “A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History,” Jeanne Theoharis calls the reduction of women’s stature in the movement “The Great Man View of History.” Women, if they are discussed at all, are “rendered . . . as passive and meek,” which neuters “them for a generation of freedom fighters,” she writes.
Yet Richardson is ever present. She was there in 2015 when Bree Newsome Bass, whom she admired, climbed a flag pole at the South Carolina state house to do what then-Governor Nikki Haley initially would not — remove a Confederate flag after a white supremacist murdered nine Black people. Richardson stood with Ieshia Evans as she calmly faced riot police during a Baton Rouge protest against the 2016 police killing of Alton Sterling. She walked and sang with LaTosha Brown, cofounder of Black Voters Matter, every time Brown marched against the hateful wave of voter suppression bills and laws.
In America, where history is willfully forgotten, we should remember Richardson, a self-described “revolutionary.” She championed racial justice in housing, employment, education, and health care, a template for today’s Black Lives Matter activists. That celebrated photo captured both a moment and the ardor of a defiant woman whose spiritual descendants continue to challenge white supremacy with a fearlessness that troubles the waters and agitates the marrow of this nation.