Gloria Richardson and the Cambridge protests


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February 17, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

Dr. Peter B. Levy was a Columbia University graduate student living in an apartment house on East 14th Street near New York City's Union Square when he realized that one of his neighbors was one of the civil rights movement's earliest heroes.

"It was Gloria Richardson," said Levy, 50, a native of Northern California who holds degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and a master's and doctorate from Columbia.

Levy, a professor of American history at York College of Pennsylvania, specializes in the 1960s, and he teaches and writes about the civil rights movement.

He is the author of Civil War on Race Street, which chronicled the struggle for civil rights in Cambridge in the early 1960s and the emergence of the charismatic Richardson as one of the movement's few female leaders.

"What makes her interesting is that here is a woman who walks around in blue jeans, is militant, and can stand up for herself," Levy said yesterday. "She was the one who educated Robert F. Kennedy about the significance of poverty and joblessness and that the movement wasn't just about desegregation."

Cambridge's troubles began in the late 1950s, when the Phillips Packing Co., the town's major industry, closed its doors.

Richardson "saw the fundamental problem facing blacks in Cambridge as a lack of adequate housing, discrimination in the educational process, lack of equal job opportunity and poor health," wrote Annette K. Brock in a chapter in the encyclopedia Notable Black American Women.

As head of the Cambridge Non-Violent Action Committee, Richardson brought the organization's demands to the City Council in the spring of 1963 -- demands that were underscored by demonstrations that lasted seven weeks.

It looked as though tensions were easing when a committee appointed by Judge W. Laird Henry agreed to desegregate public schools and public places. Later that month, 12 black youths were arrested after creating a disturbance while picketing the Board of Education office.

When two of the students were expelled from school and sentenced to indeterminate terms in correctional schools, demonstrations and economic boycotts led by Richardson continued.

On May 31, 1963, Richardson appealed directly to Attorney General Kennedy asking for an investigation into violations of constitutional rights in the city.

"Compounding the restlessness," wrote Brock, "was action on the state level by segregationist groups to block the June 2, 1963, application of the Public Accommodation law [giving blacks access to restaurants, hotels and other public places] by securing petitions to put the statute to a referendum vote in 1964."

Richardson told The Evening Sun that "many Negroes don't want to vote on something that already is their right. Public accommodations are a right that cannot be given or taken away by a vote."

"Richardson said you can't vote on human rights, especially when the white majority could vote it up or down," Levy said.

In June, rioting broke out in Cambridge, and Gov. J. Millard Tawes imposed martial law on the city after sending in the Maryland National Guard under Gen. George M. Gelston on June 14. The troops were withdrawn July 8, only to be ordered back four days later.

"All hell broke out in Cambridge, which quickly became a national story. I spent the entire summer of 1963 there," said John Woodfield, 77, who retired in 1991 after 19 years as Associated Press bureau chief in Baltimore.

Nightly demonstrations began in the black 2nd Ward with a "rousing rendition of `We Shall Overcome,' with Charley Whiteford of the Baltimore Sun always joining in with his booming baritone," Woodfield said.

The demonstrators marched down Main Street, with whites standing on either side of the road hurling insults or pelting them with an occasional egg, while Guardsmen stood by. News reporters were not spared this ugliness, Woodfield said.

On July 12, he filed a dispatch from Cambridge: "National Guardsmen -- acting under a modified version of martial law -- rolled into this terror-ridden town today and with a minimum display of force put an end tonight to new Negro demonstrations."

"Whites would drive down the main drag shooting at blacks until the National Guard put in a curfew," Woodfield recalled yesterday from his Forest Hill home.

As demonstrators gathered at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and prepared to march to white neighborhoods, Woodfield wrote of the moment when Gelston left his Guardsmen and walked unarmed down the middle of the street toward the protesters.

He held up his hand.

"The National Guard was brought here to protect all the people. If you violate the prohibition against demonstrations, you are demonstrating against the orders of the governor of the state," Gelston was quoted as saying.

The demonstrators sat down in the street and sang "Black and Whites Together" and "We Are Soldiers of the Army" as Guardsmen watched from a block and a half away.

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