When the Movement came to town in 1961, Gloria Richardson was a 39-year-old single mother of two working in her family's pharmacy. Her 16-year-old daughter Donna was first to become involved when two young organizers for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one black, one white, first arrived in Cambridge, Maryland. SNCC – pronounced “Snick” – arose out of the sit-ins that swept the South after four black students requested a cup of coffee at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960. Its subsistence-pay field secretaries, fervent believers in “black and white together,” were already at work in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia when Reginald Robinson, a Baltimore native, heard that Maryland's Eastern Shore was Dixie, psychologically speaking, despite its proximity to Washington, D.C. He and William Hansen arrived to find a white-dominated town of 12,000, with the 4,200 blacks packed into a ramshackle Second Ward demarcated from the white district by Race Street. “More hostile than Mississippi” is how the 22-year-old Hansen, son of an Ohio steelworker, who had spent 43 days in a Mississippi prison as a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Freedom Rider in 1961, described Cambridge after a mob beat him in the head during the first interracial attempt to enter a whites-only bar on January 14, 1962.
As a lull set in while city officials promised progress, the SNCC-affiliated Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee (CNAC, or “C-Nack”) watched and waited under Gloria Richardson, its chair. In spring 1963, CNAC resumed direct action when the town's segregated movie theater announced it would confine blacks to a small area at the back of the balcony. High unemployment in the Second Ward aggravated by a packinghouse collapse in the 1950s led CNAC, which had a welfare recipient and factory worker on its executive committee, to believe economic justice as important as “integration,” the goal most liberals took to be the movement's point. CNAC's demands included not only an end to school and public accommodations discrimination but low-cost public housing and hiring of blacks by all-white firms. As locals filled churches for mass meetings, dozens of college students, black and white, arrived each weekend from Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York to fill the jails.