Black women — now and then — lead a recalcitrant America toward justice

They’re still countering legal hurdles and threats with more activism

At left: Civil rights leader Gloria Richardson, who died last week, is seen at a 1963 demonstration in Cambridge, Md. At right: Rep. Joyce Beatty, who was arrested at a voting rights protest last week, is carrying on the legacy of Black female activists like Richardson, Curtis writes.  (Bettmann Archives; Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
At left: Civil rights leader Gloria Richardson, who died last week, is seen at a 1963 demonstration in Cambridge, Md. At right: Rep. Joyce Beatty, who was arrested at a voting rights protest last week, is carrying on the legacy of Black female activists like Richardson, Curtis writes. (Bettmann Archives; Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 22, 2021 at 6:00am

Though words are my primary business, I never underestimate the power of images, especially when they so clearly represent different chapters of the same old story — one that’s frustrating, exhilarating and powerful.

What was Gloria Richardson thinking, as she seems to casually push aside the bayonet-tipped firearm wielded by a National Guardsman attempting to control civil rights demonstrators in Cambridge in my home state of Maryland in 1963? Maybe the same ideas she expressed to The Washington Post last year in the wake of protests after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police office: “Racism is ingrained in this country. This goes on and on,” she said. “We marched until the governor called martial law. That’s when you get their attention. Otherwise, you’re going to keep protesting the same things another 100 years from now.”

Richardson may not have been as well known as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Rep. John Lewis, but she was “born a leader,” as her granddaughter told The Associated Press. Richardson was right there on the stage at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, though her speech was cut short after her first “hello,” perhaps for fear of what she would say next. “Before I could say another word, an NAACP official took the mic away,” Richardson once recalled.

The icon of the movement, who was a 40-year-old mother of two when she initiated and led a SNCC affiliate, the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee, died recently at the age of 99.

In photos taken just last week, Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, can be seen unapologetically carrying on the spirit of Richardson, marching to maintain hard-earned voting rights now threatened by a rash of voting restrictions across the nation. Two bills to strengthen voting rights, heirs to the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the U.S. Supreme Court seems intent on dismantling, are hitting roadblocks in Congress, from Republicans using the filibuster and Democrats hesitant to meddle with it.

But Beatty and the women and men who protested on July 15 no doubt remember that Richardson and activists faced legal obstacles as well as death threats and countered it all with more activism.

“We have come too far and fought too hard to see everything systematically dismantled and restricted by those who wish to silence us. Be assured that this is just the beginning. This is Our Power, Our Message,” read a statement from Beatty, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus.

Beatty is no stranger to this kind of treatment, having been pepper-sprayed by police in May 2020 in Columbus, Ohio, while protesting Floyd’s killing.

Then and now, the demonstrators were dismissed by protectors of a racist status quo as attention-grabbers engaging in meaningless theater, insulting when you think of all they risked. But without their sacrifice, there would have been no action.

As Richardson told Joseph R. Fitzgerald, author of a book about her, “You have to be in their faces ’til it gets uncomfortable for politicians and corporate leaders to keep opposing activists’ demands.”

Pause here to notice that Beatty, the dignified elected representative of hundreds of thousands of constituents, faced immediate arrest by U.S. Capitol Police. Compare that with the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, who are only now facing justice — and in the case of the first felony sentence of eight months in prison handed out this week, pretty lenient justice at that.

That is also not new, as I know from experiences that were part of my childhood lessons.

To those who think Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and other Deep South states when they envision dangerous civil rights confrontations, I can assure you, all of them had plenty of competition from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Remembering Gloria Richardson recalls the stories told to me by older siblings, of law enforcement officers standing by, ready to pounce, not on the angry and threatening whites who cursed, spit, shouted and threw eggs and worse, but instead on the peaceful protesters of every race who marched steadfast in their fight for justice.

My parents held their breath on those occasions when protesters — my elder siblings among them — made the trip from our Baltimore home.

Though I was not surprised, the picture of Beatty with hands zip-tied behind her back proves it’s a matter of respect, who gets it and who does not.

Most Black women know the history, from the Black suffragettes ordered to move to the back of a 1913 parade by white “sisters” in the cause — Black women, including the great journalist and civil rights leader Ida B. Wells, now with monuments in Chicago and Memphis, Tenn., and a special Pulitzer Prize, ignored them — to the former first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, subject to ridiculous attacks and brushing them off on her way to becoming a best-selling author and one of the most admired women in the world.

In the long term, my money is on them. As Beatty told Elle magazine: “It’s about the present and the future. It’s about making a statement. And we’ll be in the battle for as long as we’re needed.”

Richardson lived to see the leaders of a city that reviled her invite her back for local, state and federal honors, including a street in Cambridge bearing her name.

Now that’s a pretty picture.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.