Focus on Cambridge
by Gloria Richardson
(Leader of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee)

Originally published Freedomways, 1st Quarter, 1964.

See Cambridge MD — 1962, Cambridge MD, Movement — 1963 and Cambridge MD & the "White Backlash" for background & more information.

See also Cambridge MD Movement for web links.

What is the meaning of the Negro revolt for American democracy?

As a matter of simplification I discuss this from the point of view of Cambridge, Maryland; first, because I think the issues that are involved can be more clearly telescoped and understood if the proving ground is a small area; and second, because I truly believe that Cambridge is indicative of all that is wrong with America today.

Two years ago the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee formed what has now become known as the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee. This was the year that active change began in this city. Prior to this time individual Negroes had continuously voiced to their friends, and in social or religious gatherings, discontent with their life. Although these people were disgruntled, there was no actual coming together to bring into focus their inherited frustrations. This was only despondent talk and complaints — separate items of neglect and rejections that occurred day after day, to be passed on, in the same context and with the same futility, to their children.

Then came the "Freedom Rides" of 1962 that suddenly catapulted all the things that we had previously considered as descriptive of the Alabamas, Mississippis, and Georgias, into the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Cambridge has always been considered the town on the shore with "good race relations." Actually the very fact that this had to be stated should have made people aware that there was something evilly wrong.

To strengthen this impression, the chamber of commerce had managed to sell this image to the federal government, using one integrated restaurant and one Negro city councilman to give meat to the lie. As a result, the city of Cambridge had numerous projects that were supported by federal public works projects. These projects were supposed to alleviate unemployment! They succeeded with this hoax so well that Huntley and Brinkley did a film for the Commerce Department, showing Cambridge as the perfect example of how well federal funds could help a depressed area, never realizing that one-third of this population was not getting an equal chance at reducing their unemployment rate.

With these "Rides" the change was begun that will never stop until full equality and opportunity are won. In the beginning Negro participation in demonstrations was good. The boycott that had been set was successful. Students from the high school picketed nightly in freezing weather; some adults joined them.

It was at this precise point, two months after the beginning, trouble started. This was the problem of the "well-thinking Negro moderate." These were the people that the white power structure patted on the back, smiled at, told them how intelligent and, heaven forbid, how cultured they were. True leaders of their people "...who could tell your people what to do." And these people who had never faced jail or insult or beatings on the picket line swelled up with pride and agreed to settle down for peace. With what? Promises from and faith in their white brethren. This kind of peace lasted for eighteen months. Every time picketing was begun again, they had other reasons for saying, "let's wait a little longer."

Students Give Leadership

The students who had suffered so when the campaign was begun knew what they wanted and must have. These same students knew when they had been betrayed by the then "recognized" Negro leadership. This attitude fortunately, did not stop with the students, but included some parents also, even though some were unable to demonstrate because of job reprisals and various other economic fears.

There followed for those still working a period when we sought to prove that we would not follow this same pattern of giving in too quickly for too little. The people who are most involved and most concerned are those hundreds and thousands who for generations have been consigned to the job, school and housing ghettos no matter what their strivings, yearnings, desires or intelligence may be. These are the people to whom those of us who are fighting against terrific odds are then accountable.

To them the student movement has brought hope; that one thing that few of us had before. These students are not subject to political pressures ... some of them have not yet voted; they are not subject to economic pressures. ... they have not yet had jobs and have not become used to soft living; their egos are immune to bad press or condemnation from the white power structure; they would fly into the face of hell rather than give up and when they have been temporarily slowed down, their minds are capable of the type of creative thinking that finds a new method of nonviolent attack. Let's take a look at the people now involved in what is called the Negro Revolt. There is a different type of leadership here.

Several weeks ago I heard Negro ministers in Cambridge say " us to tell our people what to do. ..." This, of course, presupposes that those of us who are culturally deprived because of the color of our skin are also mentally and emotionally deprived. So, like sheep, we are supposed blindly to follow self-appointed leadership which has forgotten what second-class citizenship really feels like, and who still believe that if a white man smiles then "we can wait a little longer" until it is convenient for him to give us just a little more.

Here marks the dividing line between old ideas of leadership and the new, that it strongly evidenced in the Negro revolution. The "new Negro" does not tell the people involved what to do. He listens to the rumblings and the discontent. He creatively fashions this discontent into protest. Although many roadblocks are thrown in his path he is committed as part of his own faith not to give up, not to settle for tokenism, to continuously work for freedom, for himself, for his people and for the salvation of America.

Some few years ago when the sit-in movement began, the emphasis was placed on the discrimination inherent in places of public accommodation. This area was the showcase through which the consciousness of the white race would be aroused and through which the apathy of the Negro community could be overcome. It was during these times that the underprivileged Negro saw, for the first time, a vehicle that could help him out of his plight — a vehicle which he himself could understand and use.

In Cambridge during the entire four months of demonstrations the only violations of law and order, with the exception of those committed by police, were traffic violations. This was a movement also that enabled the "grass roots" people to take leadership position, making it possible for them to guide their own destiny, determine their own pace.

The October 2nd Referendum

Let us examine one example of this new decision to "determine their own pace and to guide their own destiny."

On October 2, 1963, Negro voters in Cambridge rejected the proposed Charter Amendment which would have made discrimination on the basis of race, illegal in restaurants, hotels and motels in this city. This plebiscite followed a period of violence and tension initiated and perpetuated by white mobs in retaliation to nonviolent street demonstrations — directed by the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee. This fight, which intensified last summer, had been going on for two years with the support of the overwhelming majority of the Negro people here, who believed in, or were persuaded to believe in, the tactics of nonviolence.

When the October 2nd referendum was called, CNAC took the position that the referendum was unconstitutional, illegal and immoral. We called for Negroes to boycott the polls in an expression of passive resistance in the face of an illegal hoax being perpetrated against the people. At that time I was generally credited with irresponsible leadership, although since that time much of the press and people have begun to agree with our position.

There were several facts to be considered here, and who is to say which is the most important. In the first place those Negroes who have fought for America, who have paid direct and indirect taxes, were not inclined to vote on something which no other citizen or alien in America had to vote upon. These same Negro citizens were not permitted to vote as to whether they should fight for this country or pay taxes or any of the other responsibilities imposed on United States citizens. We were being asked to tuck our dignity in our pockets and crawl to the polls to prove in a stacked vote that once again we were going to let the whites in control say what we would be permitted to do in a "free, democratic country."

Negro leadership at many levels was saying "we know the principle involved but it is expedient to do it this way." One Negro woman leader in the state said it was time that I learn to make deals. No one was ready to take a temporary loss and assume responsibility for the thousands of black people across the south who, once we submitted, would be subject to the same tactic although they would not even have the advantage of a swing-vote. They would be forced, in the name of democracy, to submit to the biased whims of a majority, and in the name of the democratic process be bound by it.

In the name of all the black and white people in America this type of precedent would have laid people bare to the whims of dishonest, big business politicians who would piously use "the referendum" as a tool to shove down the throats of an unsuspecting and unwary racial or economic minority any type of racially punitive or economically punitive legislation, on a local, state or federal level. (As a matter of fact it is now used against voters not exposed to a voter education program. }

Finally, and specifically, in reference to this referendum, it was clearly unconstitutional. Equal accommodations in public places is a right inherent to citizens, and should not be subject to the wishes and prejudices of any individual or group. Two years ago the Supreme Court of the United States, in reversing the convictions of Negro students arrested for "sitting-in" made this quite clear. In its decision the Court stated unequivocally that any facility or establishment that is public, that is to say, that operates on the basis of a franchise or license to "serve the public" granted by any unit of government, be it local, state or federal, is operating in contract with that government, and consequently with its constituents, the people. The Court pointed out that any discrimination against any group of citizens was a breach of that contract.

The referendum was an attempt to make the constitutional rights of the Negro people, as citizens of Cambridge, subject to the possible prejudices of the white majority. It was further an attempt by the city commissioners to rewrite the constitution at the expense of the rights of Cambridge's Negro citizens. Equal accommodation in public places is a right to which we are entitled, and it is as important as any other human right. But it is not the most pressing problem facing Cambridge Negroes. Here Negroes are faced with chronic and widespread unemployment and underemployment, inadequate and substandard housing and living conditions, discrimination in every area of endeavor and what is worse, in the absence of any indication that the power structure of Cambridge is prepared to reform the system, or to effect any real improvement in the foreseeable future.

Today the revolt is now ready to go into a new phase. No longer are we primarily interested in public accommodations. The "bread and butter" issues have come to the fore. A one-point program will become more and more obsolete as months wear on. The attack now has to be directed toward the economic and political structure of a community if any real progress is to be made and if tokenism is to be eliminated. The leadership within the movement is moving toward this and the people are moving with them. Always there is this togetherness after confidence in one another has been established. If the leadership ever defaults I am sure that the people for whom we are fighting will continue their own battle. For example, in Cambridge we have become very sophisticated in the technique of the boycott. Without even calling for one, the majority of the community will spontaneously put a boycott into effect.

Important to Educate the Community

This brings me to another facet of the Negro revolt: it is incumbent on every civil rights worker to educate the community as well as to articulate its desires. This does not mean educate in terms of books or schools. Many so-called educated people today do not understand what we mean when we say the first step is to educate the people, and a serious mistake can be made here. Education in this context simply means that a community has to become familiar with what it wants to achieve, how it can be achieved and how to apply techniques so that they become second nature, a part of one's way of life.

To learn and believe that they can overcome, to learn that the fight will be hard, that great sacrifices will be demanded but that it will not take another hundred years or even ten to gain the victory. To learn that what happens in Danville, Selma, Birmingham, Jackson, Albany happens to us too, in Cambridge, Baltimore, and Washington: to feel the rapport with other Negroes in other parts of the country and to become slowly and surely aware that as long as one of us has a segregationist breathing down our necks all of us are enslaved; that even though we have partial progress within our own locale, we will have to continue to stage sympathy demonstrations or acts of civil disobedience until discrimination and segregation are erased, everywhere.

There is another significant development taking place within the rights struggle. It is important and it is dangerous. Perhaps only those of us who are working in the field are really aware of it. It is that slowly and surely there is being born within the hearts and minds of Negroes today attitudes of violence. One can sense it. It is just beginning to be vocalized. Let us hope and pray that it does not find active expression.

This can be directly traced to the fact that the federal government has failed to act with vigor to stop police brutality; to see and demand that Negroes be allowed to register and not be arrested for the attempt; that the FBI, that great "fact-finding unit" can somehow never find enough evidence of brutality if a Negro is the victim; that the Justice Department only enters with vigor when a white man is hurt.

There are Negroes who are committed to violence even as those of us are to nonviolence. How long can the line be held? To some Negroes it must be proved that nonviolence can win, that you cannot fight evil with evil. They are not concerned with the philosophy of Gandhi. Just as we count our lives as nothing in the nonviolent fight they are ready to spend theirs in violence. After all, America trained them to kill and to be immune to death in order to win for an ideal — democracy. The white power structure ignores this because it is not concerned with the reality of masses of Negroes in action.

The Choice: Progress or Anarchy

The choice that Cambridge and the rest of the nation finally faces is between progress and anarchy, between witnessing change and experiencing destruction. The status quo is now intolerable to the majority of Negroes and may soon be intolerable to the majority of whites. People have called our movement the Negro Revolution. They are right. The changes for America that will flow from what Negroes throughout the country are doing shall be truly revolutionary. And we can only hope and work, and work some more, to make that revolution creative.

One hundred years ago, in the midst of the civil war, President Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address said: "Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that the cruel scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled up by the bondsman's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and that every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, So shall it still be said: The judgments of the Lord are just and righteous altogether."

These words were issued in the thick of battle and when the war died they were quickly forgotten, their meaning lost. But now the battle has resumed. Lincoln's words are again an immediate warning. No one, black or white, wants violence or bloodshed; all the Negroes of Cambridge and America desire are our rights as American citizens, to improve our own lives and the lives of our community.

And we are Americans and truly we do not believe that our Community is in any way confined to race. If the white leaders understand this, and treat us as equals, and open their hearts and minds to the kinds of courage that will bring peace to all then this is good, but if they remain indifferent and insensitive to change then all of us, in Cambridge and throughout America will have to sacrifice and risk our personal lives and future in a nonviolent battle that could turn into civil war. For now, Negroes throughout the nation owe it to themselves and to their Country to have Freedom — all of it, here and now!

Copyright © Gloria Richardson, 1964.

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