By Daniel Hardin
In the midst of ongoing fist fights, rock throwing and gun battles between white segregationists and African American seeking civil rights in 1963 Cambridge, Maryland, there was an astonishing phenomenon.
White workers sought black leadership to aid the struggle to organize and strengthen interracial unions in the town.
Cambridge Struggle Breaks Mold
The Cambridge, Maryland. civil rights struggle from 1963-67 involved the longest occupation by armed forces of a U.S. town since Reconstruction and presents a far different narrative than that of the Civil Rights movement taught in schoolbooks today.
Early on, the leadership deviated from other concurrent civil rights struggles for legal equality by taking up social justice demands such as good jobs, housing, schools and health care. It was also different because it was an indigenous struggle to the town as opposed to one orchestrated by national rights leaders.
The leadership of the Cambridge Non-Violent Action Committee (CNAC) also did not reject armed self-defense. CNAC, which affiliated with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was the only chapter led by adults and probably the only one whose principal strategist was a woman.
Much has been written about Cambridge elsewhere and a good blow-by-blow account can be found in Civil War on Race Street by Peter B. Levy.
However, less well-known is how in the midst of violent racial clashes between African Americans and whites in the town, white and black workers united behind the local civil rights leaders in their long quest to form labor unions there.
Cambridge, located on the Choptank River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, was the trading center for the plantations that surrounded the area. The abolitionist and political leader Frederick Douglas was born on a plantation about 25 miles north of there. The underground railroad conductor Harriet Tubman was born about 10 miles south of Cambridge.
During most of the first half of the twentieth century, the Phillips Packing Company (a vegetable processing and packinghouse) dominated the town and surrounding farms that provided produce for the plant.
Although Maryland is a border state, the economic and social relations were more akin to the Deep South. Racial segregation and prejudice were intense and poverty among both black and white workers was prevalent.
A promising interracial attempt at achieving economic justice began in 1937 when several thousand workers staged a strike at Phillips to form an interracial labor union in the midst of Jim Crow Cambridge.
The strike was defeated by owner Albanus Phillips who set up a company union to ward off the left-leaning CIO union.
A ten-year campaign by the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing & Allied Workers, CIO followed, but also ended in defeat. The union lost a close representation election supervised by the federal government in 1947 in the midst of accusations of communist leadership against the national cannery union.
Phillips’ company union became the hiring hall for nearly all the plants in Cambridge. Workers were screened for any independent union sympathies. Phillips remained a source of employment for black workers who generally had lower paying and less desirable jobs than white workers until the company’s decline in the mid to late 1950s.
Cambridge Movement Starts
By 1962 the Civil Rights movement was picking up steam around the country and an initial movement by students attempted to desegregate public facilities in Cambridge, a town of about 11,000 people at that time of whom about one-third were African American.
The initial protests were through peaceful picketing and sit-ins. A number of white racists attacked demonstrators but police often arrested the protesters.
These tactics produced few results until 1963 when a woman from a prominent black family in town, Gloria Richardson, was chosen to head up the movement and CNAC.
One of the first things Richardson did was conduct a survey of the black community to help determine priorities. Data were collected door-to-door and analyzed by faculty at Swarthmore College. In a 1994 interview by Peter Szabo, Richardson recalled,
I forget now which was first. What it ultimately meant to us was that we were going to have to attack the whole thing [effects of segregation] at one time-the housing, the health, because it made very little difference. I think maybe health may have come first and housing second, and schools, but it wasn’t that much difference when those compilations came back.
Much to the chagrin of established black leaders, Richardson changed the focus of the protests to demand both economic and social equality—targeting discrimination in employment, poor wages, inferior schools and health care and segregated facilities.
As more militant tactics–such as a boycott of white owned businesses—and new demands were employed, white resistance also increased.
Two 15-year-old students, Dwight Cromwell and Dinez White, were arrested for praying outside a segregated facility. Both were sentenced to indeterminate sentences in a juvenile facility—meaning they could be held for up to six years.
The sentences outraged the black community and increasingly large marches were held that were in turn met by white mobs. State troopers were present, but mostly sided with the white demonstrators.
At this point, the philosophy of non-violent resistance moved to a philosophy of armed self-defense of the black community in Cambridge. Herbert St. Clair, a prominent African American businessman active in the movement said, according to Peter Levy,
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 another mass civil rights march was held, this time with armed black men protecting the demonstrators and setting up a perimeter around the black community.
The following night fighting broke out between whites and blacks that included an exchange of gunshots and several people were wounded. Some white businesses were set on fire and when police attempted to enter the black ward, they were driven back by rocks and gunshots fired into the air.
Gloria Richardson noted in 1994,
There were some people at SNCC that [saw non-violence] really, almost as a religion, and that whole Gandhi concept. I never saw it as that. I saw it as a tactic, because certainly you couldn’t start out picking up guns running out in the street or you’d be slaughtered.
But, to create as much chaos as you could with it [non-violence], and if violence was perpetuated against you, that as long as there wasn’t a demonstration going on, you had the right to defend yourself.
It was the men that protected the community, and had to lay out in those fields with guns all night. They understood exactly what was going on and so did the women. Those men that thought they could be non-violent enough to go in the marches did. Those that didn’t did other things.
The administration of Gov. Milliard J. Tawes offered a plan of gradual desegregation that was rejected by CNAC. Tawes then sent in the National Guard for three weeks.
Following withdrawal of the Guard, CNAC resumed protests. On July 12th, a mob of whites attacked a half-dozen protesters sitting in at a restaurant. A brawl ensued as black residents fought back. Later that night a white mob attacked another civil rights march.
When night riders attempted to enter black neighborhoods, they were met with gunfire and shots were exchanged. Twelve white people were wounded by gunfire and some white owned-stores were set on fire.
The Baltimore Afro-American wrote:
For what seemed like an eternity the Second Ward [the predominantly African American area] was a replica of the Old West as men and boys of all ages roamed the streets, stood in the shadows, and leaned out of windows with their weapons in full view.
Gov. Tawes sent the National Guard back in, and they remained for almost two years—the longest occupation of any community since the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. Civil rights activists staging protests were seized and sent to the Pikesville, Maryland Armory 90 miles away for “protective custody.”
Human Rights, Not White Rights
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy brokered a settlement whereby CNAC would suspend protests in return for an end to segregation in public accommodations, desegregation of public schools, construction of public housing, and implementation of a jobs program funded by the Federal government. Kennedy also worked to free Dwight Cromwell and Dinez White after three months in the juvenile prison.
The agreement broke down almost immediately when the all-white Dorchester Business and Citizens Association filed referendum petitions to overturn the agreement.
CNAC leader Gloria Richardson took a principled, but controversial stance, when she announced that CNAC would not take part in the referendum. She said, according to Theoharis and Woodard,
A first-class citizen does not beg for freedom. 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.
In October 1963, the racists won the referendum. In the end the white segregationists had bought nine months of continued legal segregation before the passage of the federal 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Unity from Below
The civil rights campaign and the vote had unanticipated effects that threatened the power structure in town in new ways. Poor and working class whites began to seek out civil rights leaders for help.
After the vote failed to end segregation, African American Congressman from New York Adam Clayton Powell arranged for food and other supplies to be delivered to Cambridge.
Richardson remembered in 1994,
The people [authorities] in Cambridge refused to distribute [the food], so the [National] Guard distributed it.
At that time what happened is white folks started calling us on the telephone telling us that they were on welfare and they needed food, but they [racist leaders] had told them that if they went out and got any of that food, or if they saw them on the lines, they were either gonna fire them or take them off welfare or whatever… and that they couldn’t come, and what could they do?
CNAC proceeded to get cars and loaded them up with food … and went and took the food to them. Subsequently, I think they finally got enough nerve to begin to come out.
Interracial Union Organizing
The fight over segregation also led to the victories in union organizing that had failed in the decade 1937-1947. Richardson related in the 1994 interview,
What had happened was we had gone to a couple of meetings over on the other side of town where union organizers had come down from New York, and we had gone in to fight for black folk. And then when we got there, we ended up fighting for them all, because while there were some black folks in there to stand up and voice their complaints, the white folks would stand but they would come up and just go, ‘Would you tell me about that [the civil rights struggle] …?’
You know, it was weird, it was mind boggling. So then everybody stood up and said, ‘She’s gonna stay.’ So, it’s really very strange because we also were fighting these other things that probably most of them, I would assume most of them, didn’t want to go on, in terms of desegregation.
But that was because black and white people both needed more money and needed a union rather than each of them fighting for the other’s job…. They were working together and they had to come out to the black community in order to meet [at the black Rod & Gun Club]. That was the meat packers union…
The United Packing House Workers of America drive at the Coastal Foods plant (the successor company to Phillips Packing Co.) was successful with the support of CNAC.
Peter Levy noted how the union leadership and the struggle for civil rights were intertwined.
Leroy Banks spearheaded the organizing campaign inside the Coastal Foods Plant and was subsequently elected head of the local. His wife, Marva Banks, served as CNAC’s first treasurer.
CNAC leader Enez Grubb’s relatives had a history of labor activism dating back to the Phillips plant.
Grubb’s own father quit working at the Phillips Packing Company during World War II because the company union treated German prisoners of war who worked in the plants better than it treated native blacks.
Still others had relatives who had been active in the 1937 strike at Phillips.
George Cephas had been killed during the 1937 uprising. Gilbert Cephas beame a leader in the local union. Still other civil rights and student activists found work with the UPWA.
“All the Way with UPWA” became a slogan for activists. Civil rights volunteers worked the picket lines during the campaign, helping to convince migratory workers not to cross the picket lines.
After the winning drive at Coastal food, District 6 of the UPWA invited Richardson to their convention in New York City where she was greeted with renditions of civil rights songs. In return, Richardson gave a unequivocal pro-union speech, according to Levy.
Proclaiming that a revived labor movement was one of the keys to uplifting workers, especially African Americans, she [Richardson] pledged her continued cooperation with the union.
The unionization of Coastal was followed with successful campaigns at Maryland Tuna and Chun King.
The UPWA drive aggravated the differences between white “moderates” and CNAC. Those whites, mainly medium and large business owners, saw Cambridge’s non-union status as a boon to businesses. Some prominent African American in town were not happy with the unionization drives either. However, both black and white workers overwhelmingly supported UPWA’s drive for higher wages that in turn addressed issues of inequality.
White Garment Workers Stand with CNAC
In another instance, CNAC took up the plight of garment workers at the Rob Roy factory. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union had negotiated lower rates for Cambridge workers as compared to the Rob Roy facilities in New York City that were doing the same work. Richardson said, according to Faith Holseart,
The Cambridge local had both black and white members, but because of segregation, they didn’t usually meet together. But this time the black trade unionists, with support from white workers, asked us [CNAC] to come to the meetings.
For one large meeting of about two to three hundred people, ILGWU headquarters in New York sent people down who supported the wage discrepancy. In the heat of the conflict over this issue, the New York representatives red-baited me [accused of being a communist] and moved to put me out of the meeting.
When they did that, surprisingly, local white ILGWU members who in the day before civil rights demonstrations probably had been throwing stones at us, got up and said, ‘Oh, no. If she goes, all of us go.’
Richardson remembered in an interview with Joseph Mosnier that the white men in the union were afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation by white authorities in Cambridge and asked CNAC if the black men could speak for them.
CNAC representatives, relating the experiences of SNCC workers assisting a 1963 miners strike in Hazard, Kentucky, inspired the white workers to speak up.
Richardson received a visit from New York ILGWU representatives later that week at her home. She said in her interview with Holseart,
[They] told me they were going to call Jim Forman [the executive secretary of SNCC] and have him stop me from interfering with union business. I said, ‘Jim Foreman is not my boss, and he cannot tell me what to do.’
The union leaders responded, ‘Well somebody must be able to tell you, because you need to just stay out of Rob Roy. This isn’t your business.’ They went to far as to say, ‘And you better be careful.’
I replied, ‘Well you know, we are used to threats here. If you think you can get Jim Foreman to get us to stop, you go right ahead.’ I didn’t hear anything more about that from them.
In these instances, white workers were inspired by the CNAC campaign and recognized the power and leadership that it represented.
Black and white unity was achieved on this level not by Robert Kennedy’s intervention, but by the recognition by white workers that the black struggle for freedom represented new power that could benefit them also.
Following the 1962-64 protests, some federal dollars began to flow into Cambridge for parks, schools, streets, public housing and other projects. However, problems in Cambridge were not erased by the passage of civil rights legislation and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs.
Discrimination continued despite the legal end of segregation. The Cambridge economy was also continuing to slide and African Americans were faring worse in the slumping town than whites.
As protests picked up in 1967 CNAC, now named the Cambridge Black Action Federation, decided to invite H. Rap Brown (Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin) to speak on black power. Brown was chair of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and an outspoken advocate of black power who no longer believed that non-violent change was possible.
CNAC turned to Richardson who had moved to New York City with her new husband in late 1964, but still had relatives living in Cambridge. She knew Brown and invited him to speak in the town.
Brown spoke on July 24, 1967 to a crowd of several hundred people in the African American section of town.
Brown gave a fiery speech on black pride, a critique of U.S. white society and willingness of black people to fight for a better life.
Brown stayed in town for another hour or two and at one point escorted a young woman home along with several others. A shot was fired at Brown who was hit by a shotgun pellet, then gunfire began to be exchanged between white gunmen and black shooters.
At one point a carload of whites sped through the black section of town indiscriminately firing weapons.
In the early morning hours, someone set fire to the Pine Street Elementary School in the African American area of town. The white fire department refused to answer the call, and as a result two blocks and 20 buildings in the black section of town burned to the ground.
While the fire was burning, Richardson desperately tried to get help.
I had to end up calling his [National Guard Commander Gelsten’s] wife, who had just talked to him and everything was quiet … I had to finally tell her, ‘My daughter is there, Miss, she’s calling me, the firemen didn’t come in, the coals are flying all over,’ and she finally called him. And then somebody called me from the press and told me that the Guard was on its way….
I think it was finally some people way down, what we consider really racist part of the county, that let them have a fire truck. Because the city wouldn’t.
Throw Away the Key
Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew again mobilized the National Guard and showed up in town the next day saying, “”I hope they pick him [Brown] up soon, put him away and throw away the key.”
Brown was soon charged with inciting to riot, among other charges, and ultimately arrested by the FBI on additional charges of fleeing prosecution and a weapons violation. Brown was scheduled to go to trial on the riot charge in Maryland in March 1970.
On March 9, 1970 two SNCC officials, Ralph Featherstone and William (“Che”) Payne, died on U.S. Route 1 south of Bel Air, Maryland when a bomb on the front floorboard of their car exploded, completely destroying the car and dismembering both occupants. The next night the Cambridge courthouse was bombed.
Brown disappeared for 18 months before being arrested on unrelated charges. The Cambridge “inciting to riot” charge was ultimately dropped.
The five-year mass movement in Cambridge ended in the aftermath of the 1967 uprising. Federal representatives offered aid, but Agnew refused to accept it. Richardson remembered that,
Anything else that was left over from the two years or three years before-got agreement on it from Washington … Agnew stopped it. That was it. They did not control him like they did Tawes, and it fell apart at that point. … I think the [federal] government was sincere at that time, but it was just that Agnew said no. He hated Rap Brown. He hated Stokely Carmichael.
Richardson remembered that when Agnew came to town the day after the fire, he maligned all African Americans in the town.
[He said] ‘These were thugs.’ He made the mistake of standing up and calling them thugs. That’s after they’d been up all night long trying to put out the fires.
Agnew went on to further his career seeking to pit white voters against African Americans. Ironically he had initially been elected governor of Maryland when liberals flocked to him in 1964 in opposition to Democrat candidate George Mahoney’s slogan, “Your home is your castle,” a call for resistance to open housing legislation.
Agnew was chosen by Richard Nixon to be his vice-presidential candidate in 1968 and became the mouthpiece for Nixon’s “law and order” crusade against left-leaning African Americans and white antiwar activists.
The hypocrisy of the Nixon/Agnew campaign was revealed when Agnew was forced to resign the vice-presidency in 1973 because he was facing corruption charges and Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974 after his cover-up of crimes committed during the Watergate scandal.
The Pine Street neighborhood, once thriving, has never recovered. As the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries became increasingly polluted and overfished and economic changes made vegetable production less profitable, most of the packinghouses throughout Maryland closed.
While legal segregation ended, economic conditions and opportunities for the vast majority of African Americans in Cambridge improved briefly in the mid 1960s, but little over the subsequent decades.
As the Black Lives Matters movement today increasingly makes connections to economic and social repression, it opens the possibility of the movement expanding its influence by taking up the economic and social struggles much in the way Richardson’s CNAC was able to extend its influence and leadership to build more powerful organization.
Unions, besieged today with relentless attacks, have in large part stood on the sidelines of the movement against unwarranted police violence. Perhaps both movements would do well to apply some of the lessons drawn from a small Maryland town some 50 years ago.
The sources for this post include Civil War on Race Street by Peter Levy; Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America by Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard; Hands on the Freedom Plow by Faith Holseart; Transcript of H. “Rap” Brown’s 1967 Cambridge Speech by Lawrence Peskin and Dawn Almes; Oral History Project interview with Gloria Richardson with Joseph Mosnie, 2011; Maryland Historical Magazine, Fall 1994; The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun and the Baltimore Afro-American among others.
Some excerpts of H. Rap Brown’s (Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin) 1967 speech in Cambridge:
On the word black:
It takes a lot of effort to love black in America. You’ve been told all your life if you’re black, you’re wrong. If you’re black, there’s something wrong with you. They tell you black cows don’t give good milk; black hens don’t lay eggs. Devil’s food cakes. You know, you put on black to go to funerals. When you put on white you go to weddings.
On taking on the white power structure:
They run around and tell you: “Don’t start no fight with the honky pecker `cause you can’t win. He outnumber you. Hell! Don’t you know they always outnumber us? David was outnumbered when he fought Goliath. He was outnumbered. Hell! Daniel in the lion’s den was outnumbered. Moses was outnumbered. All of us is outnumbered. That don’t make no difference.
On looting that occurs during an uprising:
He run around and he talk about black people looting. Hell, he the biggest looter in the world. He looted us from Africa. He looted America from Indians. Man can you tell me about looting? You can’t steal from a thief. This is the biggest thief going.
On President Lyndon Johnson:
Now we’re gonna talk about Lyndon Johnson. Lyndon Johnson is the greatest outlaw going. He is a two-gun cracker. He killing black folks here and he killing them in Vietnam. That’s Lyndon Johnson, your President. That’s who he is.
And they talk about how bad Hitler was. At least before Hitler burned the Jews he killed them with gas. Lyndon Johnson is throwing napalm on human beings in Vietnam. Burning them to death. He burning babies. He burning hospitals. He can’t be nothing but an outlaw.
Any time a man sends a plane full of napalm over a village of children, over school houses and blow them up and burn children, believe me, brother, the only reason he do it is because the Viet Cong is black, too.
He’s [white man] been running around here letting them do everything they want. I mean, don’t be trying to love that honkey to death. Shoot him to death. Shoot him to death, brother. ‘Cause that’s what he’s out to do to you.
‘Do to him like he would do to you, but do it to him first.’ Like I said in the beginning, if this town don’t come ‘round, this town should be burned down. It should be burned down, brother.
They going to have to live in the same stuff I live in ’cause I ain’t going to make it no better for them. But do this brother — don’t burn up your own stuff. Don’t tear up your own stuff. Whenever you decide to fight the man, take it to his battleground.
One thing that man respects. It’s money. That’s his god. When you tear down his store, you hit his religion. You hit him right where it hurt him on Sunday. In his pocket. That’s his best friend. In his pocket. So, when you move to get him, don’t tear up your stuff, don’t tear up your brother’s store, hear?
Want to see and read more?
Images of Cambridge, MD: 1963-67
Civil Rights images in Maryland