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1935

By Erick Johnson

RICHARD GORDON HATCHER waves in front of his campaign headquarters in 1967. (Photo courtesy of Smugshot.com)

He was just 34 years old when he made history in a city where Blacks weren’t welcomed downtown or at City Hall. Two months ago, Richard Gordon Hatcher stood next to a new nine-foot statue that was erected at a building where he took office after a stunning victory that changed America’s political landscape for hundreds of Blacks seeking to lead cities across the country.

Following the announcement of his death the flag at Gary’s City Hall was lowered to half-staff in acknowledgement of Hatcher’s importance to the city.

This weekend, thousands will say goodbye to Hatcher, Gary’s first Black mayor and a pioneering public servant whose historic election more than 50 years ago changed Gary forever.

Just across Broadway from City Hall, mourners will gather at the Genesis Convention Center to honor the life and contributions of the five-term mayor. It will be a fitting tribute to Hatcher, who during his term, built the facility as a symbol of hope and promise after whites fled the city during a new era of Black political power.

Hatcher died December 13, following a groundbreaking career. He was 86.

A week of mourning will come to an end, with two services that will draw politicians, civic leaders and admirers young and old to the Genesis Convention Center. There, Hatcher will lie in repose from noon to 8 p.m. on Friday, December 20. Hatcher’s funeral services will be at 1 p.m., Saturday, December 21.

Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. will  give the eulogy during Hatcher’s funeral.

Two years ago, Jackson at an event joked that Hatcher was also the founder of Merrillville, the predominately white town that was created when whites fled Gary after Hatcher was elected mayor on November 7, 1967.

That same night, Carl Stokes was elected as Cleveland’s first Black mayor. Stokes died in 1996. By that time, 82 Black mayors had been elected in America’s bigger cities, including New York and Chicago. Hatcher lived to see his contributions blossom as there are now 500 Black mayors across the country, including 21 in the Midwest.

Hatcher’s death comes as Gary’s first Black female mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson, leaves office after two terms at City Hall.

Freeman-Wilson and many Gary residents still remember that year when Hatcher crashed City Hall with his stunning victory.

In 1967, Blacks in Gary grew to be 53 percent of the city’s 175,415 population. Many moved to Gary during the second wave of the Great Migration. As Black residents lacked political power, many lived in slums while white residents lived in the city’s best neighborhoods.

Hatcher launched a campaign for mayor to rid Black neighborhoods of slums, and address a housing crisis that festered in Black neighborhoods for years under the city’s white political establishment. Despite its rising Black population, no Black had ever been elected in Gary’s 61-year history.

In the Democratic primary, Hatcher faced mayoral incumbent A. Martin Katz, who was seeking his second term in office. Katz was a former prominent judge who maintained a stellar reputation as Gary’s mayor. Despite the odds, Hatcher defeated Katz in the primary by 2,300 votes, clearing the path for a historic political achievement that many Blacks in Gary did not believe would happen. Celebrations reportedly shut down six blocks on Broadway.

In the general election, Hatcher faced Republican opponent Joseph Radigan. Gary had not had a Republican mayor since 1938, but Hatcher still faced a hurdle. He had spent most of his campaign money on his primary race. In addition, Gary’s Democratic organization supported Radigan, when Hatcher said he wasn’t going to allow Democratic leaders to pick the city’s police chief, city attorney and other major positions if he was elected mayor. During that time, the number of Black registered voters still trailed whites.

With $8,000, Hatcher placed ads in the New York Times and the Post-Tribune in Gary that read, “Richard Hatcher is battling bigotry and ignorance. And he needs your help.”

The ads attracted more than $250,000 in campaign donations and invitations to appear on TV and radio shows. They also attracted the attention of Senator Robert Kennedy, Vice President Hubert Humphrey and others.

Until the day he died, Hatcher reportedly kept a framed copy of the ad.

CROWDS JAM A precinct to celebrate after Richard Gordon Hatcher was elected as Gary’s first mayor in 1967.

On a crisp fall night on November 7, 1967, Hatcher defeated Radigan. Early returns showed Hatcher won by 1,389 votes, but the final count was 2,200 votes. In a state where the Ku Klux Klan flourished, Hatcher became the first Black mayor of Gary, which then was the second largest city in Indiana.

In a 2017 Crusader article marking the 50th anniversary of Hatcher’s historic win, Freeman-Wilson recalled she was seven years old the night Hatcher became Gary’s first Black mayor.

“I still remember the night when he won the election. My mom was hosting a party and I remember her getting a phone call. She said Hatcher had won and I thought that it was the greatest thing in the world that he was going to be our mayor. He was someone who looked like us and fought for the things we believed in and needed.

A RESIDENT MEETS Richard Gordon Hatcher during his successful campaign for mayor in 1967. (Photo courtesy of Smugshot.com)

“But the thing that struck me the most about Hatcher was his accessibility. In his 20 years at City Hall, Hatcher was always accessible to everyone. He was a rock star then, but he made sure that he met everyone.

“He literally opened the door to Black political empowerment on the local level, state level and federal level. He sent a message across the country and he gave rise to other Black mayors in small and big cities.”

When Hatcher was elected, the city’s poverty rate was 15 percent and Black unemployment was twice as high as that of whites. More than 40 percent of the city’s public housing was in disrepair. As mayor, Hatcher helped pass an open housing law that ended restrictive covenants among white property owners who forced Blacks to live in the city’s Midtown neighborhood.

In his first term, Hatcher set out to build a more inclusive city government. He implemented his proposed Model Cities’ program, which rehabbed areas of the city where crime and poverty existed. He also built new low-income public housing developments and expanded Gary’s airport. He spearheaded the city’s first affirmative action legislation and largely gave city contracts to Black and minority businessmen.

Under Hatcher, Gary became the seat of a new Black political power movement. As Blacks in Chicago suffered under Richard J. Daley, Blacks in Gary gained political influence. At City Hall, there were just two Black department heads in Gary. At the end of Hatcher’s mayoral career, there were 25.

In 1972, Hatcher and his city hosted the historic National Black Political Convention in Gary, which brought prominent Black political and civil rights leaders across the country, leaders such as Reverend Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, U.S. presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm, writer Amiri Baraka, Muslim leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, and Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz.

NBPC organizers had begun planning the conference in 1970, but the organization struggled to find a city willing to accommodate  an influx of politically-engaged Black Americans.

Hatcher was an advocate of civil rights for Blacks and minorities in his predominantly Black city. Not since the 1930s, with the first meeting of the National Negro Congress in Chicago, had such a massive and diverse gathering of people of color convened to advance their rights. Approximately 3,000 official delegates and 7,000 attendees from across the United States met at Gary’s West Side High School from March 10 to March 12.

The convention had a Black agenda that reflected the Black Power movement that was growing among Blacks who were left disillusioned after the peaceful protests during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. With the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and Black Panther Fred Hampton, the convention took on a more militant tone as some leaders urged Blacks to step up their efforts to help people of color get quality employment, housing, education and justice in American cities.

MAYOR RICHARD GORDON HATCHER speaks during a press conference during the historic National Black Convention in 1972.
BLACK ACTIVISTS FROM across the country promoted Black Power during the historic National Black Convention at then-West Side High School in 1972.

The convention would be the beginning of a new relationship between Hatcher and Jesse Jackson Sr., a rising social activist who was part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s. inner circle, before King was assassinated in 1968.

In 1984, Hatcher served as chairman of Jackson’s Democratic campaign for president. Jackson became the second Black after Chisholm to run for the White House, but he lost the nomination to Colorado Senator Gary Hart.

Hatcher however was rising on the national political stage. He served as advisor to Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter on civil rights and urban policy. New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey met with Hatcher during their visits to Gary.

Nearly one year after he was elected, Hatcher was granted federal money to open a Holiday Inn Hotel at 465 Broadway. The hotel fell on hard times before it was rebranded as a Sheraton Hotel in 1978 after the building had served as a Holiday Inn.

In 1982, the Genesis Convention Center opened with a name that honored Hatcher’s resilience to establish a new beginning for Gary. With a new convention center and a name-brand hotel, Hatcher hoped to cement Gary as an important destination for tourism and business organizations.

MAYOR RICHARD GORDON HATCHER hosted the National Newspaper Publishers Association’s (NNPA) annual convention in 1983. Pictured l-r: Dorothy R. Leavell, Benjamin Hooks, Mayor Harold Washington, Mayor Richard Hatcher and John Sengstacke.

One year after the Genesis Convention Center opened the facility hosted the National Newspaper Publishers Association’s (NNPA) annual convention, in 1983. The event, hosted by Gary’s Black newspapers, the Gary Crusader and the Gary Info, would be one of numerous efforts Hatcher would make to help his city recover from the devastating white flight that took away many of Gary’s businesses and decimated the city’s once thriving downtown district.

Dorothy R. Leavell, publisher of the Gary Crusader, initiated the invitation to NNPA and fought hard to land the convention for Gary. The convention established Gary as a city capable of hosting medium-sized conventions. Gary Info publisher Imogene Harris and Mayor Hatcher worked side by side with Leavell to host the Black Press of America.

The Sheraton would host Donald Trump’s Miss USA pageant for several years before it fell on hard times. In 2014, the hotel was demolished after years of decline. The Genesis Center remains standing.

During Hatcher’s terms in office, U.S. Steel cut its workforce from 35,000 in the 1970s to 25,000 in the 1980s. By the time Hatcher lost re-election for a sixth term in 1987, Gary’s population had dropped to 125,000 and the Black unemployment rate was at 25 percent.

Hatcher had critics, many of whom accused the mayor of not doing enough as the city received hundreds of millions in federal funds. But many residents believed that Hatcher faced an uphill battle to revive the city after businesses and white residents pulled out.

Under subsequent mayors, Gary never fully recovered from white flight, although the city showed signs of a rebirth under current Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.

Hatcher leaves without ever seeing his dream of a National Civil Rights Hall of Fame Museum in Gary become a reality.

He campaigned for it in the 1970s and estimated that 500,000 people would explore Gary’s historic Black political past to educate future generations about prominent people of color. Last year, Hatcher was present as the Reverend Al Sharpton was the guest speaker at a fundraiser to build the National Civil Rights Hall of Fame.

During his terms, Hatcher beamed with pride to see Gary’s rise on the national stage as actors, singers, entertainers including the Jackson family, and Deniece Williams achieved success and prominence on billboard charts.

Until the end of his life, Hatcher largely remained a respected political figure whose historic election earned him legendary status. His achievement became a significant turning point for the lives of thousands of Blacks in Gary.

Hatcher was born on July 10, 1933 in Michigan City, Indiana. He was one of 13 children born to Carlton and Catherine Hatcher. His father worked for the railcar maker, Pullman-Standard.

In 1956, Hatcher graduated from Indiana University. In 1959, he obtained a law degree from Valparaiso University. He moved to Gary, where he served as a deputy county prosecutor and worked in private practice, helping to represent plaintiffs in a lawsuit charging the Gary school system with segregation.

He participated in the picketing of a local hospital because of its segregated room policies. In 1963, Hatcher was elected to the City Council and was the only elected president of the City Council in Gary’s history. Four years later, he made his historic run for mayor.

Hours after Hatcher won, Carl Stokes became the first Black mayor of Cleveland, some 317 miles away.Since Hatcher left office in 1987, Gary has had three Black mayors. In addition to Freeman-Wilson the city’s first Black female mayor, they include Thomas V. Barnes and Rudolph Clay. But it is Hatcher’s impact that has been felt far beyond Gary.He along with Stokes ignited a national movement that led to hundreds of Black mayors taking the leadership at city halls across the country, from Tom Bradley’s stunning election as Los Angeles’ mayor, to Detroit’s Coleman Young’s sweeping victory, to the rise of Chicago’s beloved Harold Washington.

Today, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Atlanta all have Black male and female mayors.

In 2017, Hatcher attended “A Day to Remember,” a three-hour, Black-tie celebration that marked the 50th anniversary of the historic election.

It was held at West Side Academy’s theatre, where Jackson, Minister Louis Farrakhan and singer and Gary legend Deniece Williams were guests. Hatcher’s wife, Ruthellyn and his three daughters, Ragan, Rachelle and Renee were there to celebrate the important occasion.

In October, Hatcher made his final public appearance during an unveiling of a nine-foot statue at City Hall. It was a simple ceremony. Hatcher did not speak, but he helped remove the covering to unveil a bronze statue of himself when he was a young, dapper, ambitious figure who took over City Hall.

“We are here for a special occasion, but we are really here simply to say thank you,” Freeman Wilson said as Hatcher sat a few feet away. “It seems only fitting and proper … that we acknowledge what folks around the globe have acknowledged–the greatness among us in the form of a statue.”

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