Two Maryland women at the center of history, June 1963

Remembering disturbers of the status quo — Madalyn Murray O'Hair and Gloria Richardson Dandridge

June 14, 2013|Dan Rodricks

The American clock brings us to the 50th anniversaries of two extraordinary events involving two extraordinary women, Gloria Richardson Dandridge and Madalyn Murray O'Hair — both strong-willed champions of liberty and disturbers of the status quo, but women of very different character, purpose and legacy.

One is now 91 years old, long esteemed as a brave civil rights leader who refused to smile on demand and who famously brushed away a bayonet. The other was a noisy atheist, reviled as the most hated woman in America; she died a violent death nearly two decades ago.

This month marks 50 years since the race riots in Cambridge, the small city on Maryland's Eastern Shore that became a crucible for civil rights in 1963. Gloria Richardson, a black woman whose grandfather represented the all-black ward on the City Council, emerged as a leader of those who demanded an end to segregation in Cambridge's schools, its restaurants, the movie theater, the hospital, and all aspects of public life there — housing and health, jobs and justice.

Caught between what she refers to as the "so-called black leadership" — those who wanted to continue to accommodate institutionalized racial discrimination — and the white power structure, Richardson became the leader of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee and brought a list of demands to the City Council. That was in the spring of 1963. A series of marches and demonstrations supported the effort to end segregation.

By mid-June, white opponents of Richardson and CNAC had taken to the streets, too. Tensions rose. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in downtown Cambridge, and an NAACP leader threatened to bring thousands more if CNAC's demands were not met. There were confrontations, fistfights and sporadic gunfire. Cambridge erupted in riots. Maryland's governor sent the National Guard to restore peace, and there's a remarkable photograph of Gloria Richardson brushing away the bayonet of a Guardsman.

She was fearless, and she did not relent. "We will demonstrate again when the Guard leaves if our demands are not met," she told a crowd in the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 15. "We will walk the streets of Cambridge again."

In July 1963, Richardson was among those invited to a meeting in Washington with Robert F. Kennedy, the U.S. attorney general, who brokered a peace treaty between black leaders and Cambridge officials. During the meeting, Kennedy asked Richardson to smile, telling her, "If you're up here looking like that, you're not going to get anything." In "Here Lies Jim Crow," his important book on civil rights in Maryland, C. Fraser Smith describes Kennedy's paternalistic demand for "the smile of acquiescence [Richardson] had been unwilling to grant to the city officials of Cambridge."

Richardson only half-smiled and made no commitment to do as Kennedy instructed. There wasn't much to smile about in those days, with black Americans still seeking equality 100 years after the Civil War. The National Guard remained in Cambridge well into 1964, until passage of the Civil Rights Act. Gloria Richardson withdrew from the Cambridge scene to give way to other leaders, married a man named Dandridge and moved to New York City. Her memories of the struggles in Cambridge are vivid, and she happily notes that the mayor there now is Victoria Jackson-Stanley, the first black woman to hold that position.

Atheists' rights

June 17 marks 50 years since the Supreme Court decision declaring laws requiring Bible reading in public schools unconstitutional. At the center of that historic ruling was Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Baltimore atheist and mother of the plaintiff in a case challenging the city school board's Bible requirement.

The Supreme Court case is actually Abington School District v. Schempp, which originated in Pennsylvania when Edward Schempp, a suburban Philadelphia man and Unitarian, sued his son's school over forced Bible readings and daily recitations of the Lord's Prayer. But O'Hair's ability to attract press attention made Murray v. Curlett, originating in Baltimore, the more famous of the two cases after they were consolidated and argued before the court.

The decision was 8-1, and it rocked the country. At one point, a magazine dubbed O'Hair "the most hated woman in America," and she became the nation's most outspoken atheist, founder of what she declared a nationwide movement to defend the civil rights of nonbelievers and to work for the separation of church and state.

Madalyn Murray O'Hair also had much to do with the rise of the Christian right as a political force to counter the ungodly secularism she espoused in a media that relished her outrageous comments. A biographer later revealed her cynicism about the atheist movement as well as the benefactors and supporters who had provided her with a lavish lifestyle.

It all went away by the early 1990s. Chapters of the American Atheist movement folded. O'Hair's son, William, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, disavowed his mother's beliefs and started an evangelical campaign to restore prayer in school.

In 1995, O'Hair was kidnapped, murdered, and her body mutilated by a former American Atheist office worker in Texas.

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