Cambridge, Md. 1963: when the civil rights movement hit back

Jul 3, 2014

Gloria Richardson, local leader of the Cambridge movement, pushes away the bayonet of a National Guard officer

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the historic and militant struggle of the Second Ward residents of Dorchester County, Maryland in 1963. The residents of the Second Ward launched a community-based effort against racist politicians and business owners in their county, leading to a year-long stand-off between white racists and the Black residents of Cambridge. Eventually, the struggle led to the desegregation of schools, hospitals and recreation areas in all of Maryland and the longest martial law deployment in the United States since 1877.

The Cambridge struggle was led by Gloria Richardson, who became increasingly militant and served as a transitional figure from the Civil Rights to the Black Power phase of the Black freedom movement.

Cambridge: the Deep South in Maryland

In the early 1960’s, one-third of Cambridge residents were Black and all lived in the “Second Ward.” The area had a deep history of racism and segregation rooted in its slave past. In Maryland, a border state between North and South, the east of Chesapeake Bay (home to Cambridge) was considered at the time as “slave holding Dixie,” while the areas to the west were considered to be more influenced by northern society and customs.

In a 1997 interview, Gloria Richardson recalled of Cambridge: “You could go in restaurants and order food but you could not eat there.”

Although the town was 34 percent Black, there were only between one and three Black police officers at any given point. The Black officers were forbidden to patrol in white neighborhoods or arrest whites. White policemen, of course, could arrest whomever they wanted.

“There was an inadequate representation of Blacks in the legal system unless one was ‘a respected Negro,’” Richardson told the Baltimore Sun.

Furthermore, police brutality and racist Cambridge locals posed an ever-present threat to the physical safety of the residents of the Second Ward. Economic security was extremely hard to come by, with Black unemployment in Cambridge at 30 to 40 percent in 1961. This was roughly four times the unemployment rate for the white residents of Cambridge.

White unemployment in Cambridge was actually double the national average—a result of the closing of the town’s major employer, the Phillips Packing Co., in the late 1950’s. But the two remaining large factories in the area, both defense contractors, had struck a reactionary deal with the white residents and politicians in the area—at the expense of Black workers. The factories promised to hire only white workers in return for the workers rejecting any attempt at unionization.

In Cambridge, all lunch counters, cafes, churches and entertainment venues were either separated with white and Black sections or had race-specific days. Schools were segregated and Black children received half the funding of white children. Residents of the Second Ward were forced to travel two hours by car to Baltimore if they wanted to visit a hospital because the local Cambridge hospital would not admit them.

This was the climate of racism and oppression that gave birth to the Cambridge movement.

The Cambridge movement is born

In the Deep South, racism and white supremacy were blatant and deeply entrenched. But the Civil Rights Movement that took hold in these areas had a profound impact on Black communities nationwide and places like Cambridge, giving them encouragement to fight back.

The group that led the residents of the Second Ward, the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee, had its roots in the 1961 campaign of the Civic Interest Group of Baltimore and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) who initiated “freedom rides” and civil disobedience inside of segregated and public and private locations. These groups sat-in, marched, rallied and withstood racist attacks up and down Route 40 which connected Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.

The 1961 campaign by these two mainly youth-led groups on Route 40 put pressure on the Kennedy administration and Maryland Governor J. Millard Tawes to call for desegregation in the area. By the end of 1961, the success of the Route 40 campaign prompted the Civic Interest Group to expand the protests to other cities “east of the Bay,” including Cambridge.

In January 1962, the Civic Interest Group and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee began organizing local students and new activists in the Second Ward to end second-class citizenship and discrimination. A large march of hundreds marched on the segregated downtown areas of Cambridge. Many of the protesters were beaten by racist white residents and arrested by the local police.

The repression did not stop the movement. Instead, that same night, 300 Black residents of Cambridge gathered at a friendly church in support of the protesters. Many of the people in attendance were the mothers of the students who were arrested or beaten up earlier in the day. After this meeting of concerned parents and residents, the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee (CNAC) was born.

Week after week, CNAC protesters continued to target segregated places in and around the Cambridge area. This effort eventually forced Maryland Governor J. Millard Tawes to pass an anti-discrimination bill to end segregation in public accommodations throughout the state. However, the legislation was rendered useless when racist legislatures inserted a clause allowing counties to simply exempt themselves from the law.

CNAC activists found themselves continuing their fight to end segregation all through 1962, targeting the Cambridge swimming pool, ice rink and movie theatre specifically.

The leadership of Gloria Richardson

Gloria Richardson was drawn into the CNAC protests by her daughter, Donna Richardson, a high school student leader. Her efforts as the militant leader of the CNAC would cause some to call her “Glorious Gloria” and even “the Second Harriet Tubman” (who was also from Maryland).

In the spring of 1963 Gloria Richardson and the CNAC brought their demands for desegregation and economic equality to the local city council and began to hold confrontational demonstrations that lasted for several weeks. Members of CNAC believed in non-violence as a tactic but not in the philosophy of pacifism. As one CNAC leader put it, “We are not going to initiate violence. But if we are attacked, we are not going to turn the other cheek.”

On June 13, 1963, 500 protesters marched downtown, clashing with racists. Governor Tawes held a meeting in which he offered to speed up school desegregation, build public housing, and establish a biracial commission if protest leaders agreed to end the protests. CNAC rejected it, not trusting the sincerity of the deal. On June 14, Tawes declared martial law and sent troops into Cambridge to quell the protests.

After CNAC met with Tawes, the National Guard left Cambridge on July 8. That same day, proprietor Robert Fehsenfeld assaulted protesters outside the segregated Dizzyland Restaurant, which caused protests to restart. On July 10, hundreds of white racists surrounded Black protesters during a march to the courthouse, leading to another battle. The National Guard re-entered Cambridge and remained there until the following year.

On July 23, the Treaty of Cambridge was signed between city officials, civil rights organizations and the Justice Department. The agreement called for immediate desegregation of schools and hospitals, the construction of low-rent public housing, the Maryland Department of Employment Security and the Post Office hiring Black workers, the appointment of a human relations commission and an amendment to the city charter to desegregate public spaces.

This Treaty, a victory won through the organization and militant fight-back of Second Ward residents, unraveled when segregationist politicians and businessmen forced it to a referendum. Richardson took the controversial step of calling for a boycott of the referendum—even though the civil rights side may have been able to win—arguing that, “A first-class citizen does not plead to the white power structure to give him something that the whites have no power to give or take away. Human rights are human rights, not white rights.” She further emphasized that the Treaty’s focus on segregation obscured the demands of housing and economic equality.

Richardson’s move alienated many of the larger established civil rights groups, but made her a pole of attraction to the next generation of young Black militants developing in the direction of Black Power. Cambridge, Maryland further polarized, causing the government to take aggressive steps to improve conditions and prevent full scale “civil war,” which Richardson warned could come.

While the movement eventually died down in Cambridge, Maryland and the fight for racial equality there is far from over, its few years of intense struggle show a different side of the civil rights movement. Beyond the well-known battles and prominent leaders, it was an era of constant social upheaval, in which oppressed people realized their power to organize and fight. From the “average people,” new leaders—men and women—emerged.

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In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...