Sometime in the late 1960s I fell in love with Gloria Richardson. To be precise I fell in love with a picture of her from 1964 and what it represented for me: direct and fierce action from a woman of color. I found the picture when doing photographic research for a television show for which I worked at WGBH in Boston. “Say Brother” was one of the first weekly black programs created across the nation in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (See Devorah Heitner’s book: “Black Power TV,” available in Spring 2013 from Duke University Press.)
Still in college, I worked on “Say Brother” as a production assistant and learned what it meant to be an activist/artist. I learned to write and to see the value of culture to movements for human rights. And I learned what sparked love for me.
At the time I discovered Gloria Richardson’s picture, among many other inspiring news photographs that captured the Civil Rights Movement’s heroic moments, there was little discussion of the role of women in that movement and I had no real idea who she was, or any of the many other women who did the hard work along with the men whose names we all know. But the glare she tossed back at the bayonet wielded by a white soldier told me all. There’s something about the steely gaze and her lush features along with the crispness of her white shirt—tough and feminine at the same time—something women were told was impossible.
Whenever I saw the picture I wanted those eyes to soften and look at me; I marveled at the full lips and wondered about the strength of the hand she raised to the weapon that shadowed her vulnerable chest. I was a secret lesbian in the nest of Black Nationalism so I never lingered too long over the print, but did consider how I might capture a copy…not the easiest thing to do in those days when the photocopy machine was monitored like a secret weapon.
Later I learned that Gloria Richardson, encouraged by her high school-aged daughter, became part of the Cambridge Non-Violent Action Group, the only adult organization affiliated with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In the mid-1960s the group demonstrated against segregation and in support of adequate housing, facing violent opposition; which led the Governor of Maryland to call in the National Guard. (This was before the Guard was sent off to kill people on the other side of the world but often used to keep the peace at home.) Ultimately the group came to an agreement with the city facilitated by Robert Kennedy and the Department of Justice.
I didn’t know any of that at the time I discovered that photo. In that moment I felt viscerally drawn to her even though she was probably the age of my own mother. She was caught in a moment of defiance and energy and activism that was timeless; it was a look that I would subsequently look for in the women I would love and that I wanted to find inside myself.
I’m currently researching an article on the role of culture in both the Black Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Movement which is how I rediscovered Gloria Richardson’s picture. Images of the Black Civil Rights Movement were broadcast widely (rather than the way that photos from the Gay Movement are often squelched) and they galvanized support among members of all communities. The photographs became the seeds of personal change, activism and art where ever they appeared. And they still have that power.
If one can believe Wikipedia Gloria Richardson is still alive and this would be her 90th year! I imagine that almost 50 years later the fierceness in her eyes remains just as sexy and inspiring as ever!