Gloria Richardson and Black Women’s Intellectual HistoryRoundup
tags: civil rights, African American history, womens history, Protest, Gloria Richardson
Robert Greene II is an assistant professor of history at Claflin University and lead associate editor of Black Perspectives. He studies American history after 1945 with a focus on the American South, political history, and memory. Follow him on Twitter @robgreeneII.
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.
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