William Greaves’ documentary on 1972 National Black Political Convention shows that Blacks, too, have become more inclusive
By Wayne A. Young
When William Greaves’ film about the 1972 National Black Political Convention, which took place in my hometown of Gary, Indiana, was released last month, the cry of “Nationtime” rang as it did in my high school nearly 50 years ago.
Watching the new restoration, I recall being a 12-year-old boy and accidently walking into the lobby and picking up literature that inspired dreams for my city and my country.
As the film rolls, Richard Gordon Hatcher (who will be “my mayor” for eternity) opens the Convention in the newly constructed West Side High School with poet Amiri Baraka. Baraka starts by declaring the objectives of the 10,000-person gathering: “Firstly, the unity of Black people.”
The City Built on Sand
It was sweet to see so many budding and established activists, from Max Robinson to Rosa Parks to Ron Dellums all sitting in the Cougar Den — our gymnasium, with its orange and blue colors, turned into a historic gathering hall.
The Convention was just one in a string of historic events that pollinated our industrial, working class, Lakeshore town and made it an epicenter of Black progress and pride.
Hatcher’s historic win as mayor came in 1967, on the same day that Carl Stokes was elected mayor of Cleveland — the first two Blacks with mandates to govern major American cities. In 1970, The Jackson Five – Gary’s homegrown wonder boys – had their first #1 hit, “I Want You Back.” In 1971, Gary native Kellee Patterson became the first African American chosen as Miss Indiana and competed in the Miss America pageant. The Ms. Black America pageant came to the “City Built on Sand” in 1975, and again in 1976, the same year Ernest Lee Thomas, another native son, burst onto the national scene with his lead role on ABC’s “What’s Happening!!”
In 1981, Gary opened the Genesis Convention Center. While white Republican-controlled Indianapolis received monetary support from the Indiana legislature to build its convention center, Black Democratic-controlled Gary got nothing. “Our convention center is probably the only convention center in the U.S. that was built entirely with federal funds,” Hatcher told me when we discussed whatever happened to the revolution in his ranch-style home in 2005.
There was talk of Black sororities and fraternities and professional organizations creating a voluntary convention circuit, like the old involuntary chittlin’ circuit, that would include the Steel City, spurring development of Black-owned hotels and other services. But the promises went unfulfilled and our dream of turning Gary into a model city is a dream deferred. When Gary hosted the 50th Anniversary Miss USA pageant in 2001 and again in 2002 at the Genesis Center, the adjacent 14-story convention center hotel had closed having never turned a profit.
Mayor Hatcher summed up the revolution’s delay by explaining that his power was limited. The problem, he said, was that “All the major economic decisions in the city were being made in rooms where there were no Blacks at all. In the end, the economic decisions were far more powerful than the political decisions.” I often share this quote with those who question how gentrification takes place in an era of Black mayors.
Economically, Gary struggled and continues to struggle. While the city has become the western gateway to the Indiana Dunes National Park, we’ve lost population. West Side High is the last of seven high schools operating in the city and in need of repair. The neighboring town that the state helped to incorporate for white families fleeing Hatcher’s “Black Power” will soon be 50 percent Black.
Black Power: Its Wins and Losses
The vision of more Black political power, articulated by Hatcher and Baraka and so many other eloquent speakers in “Nationtime,” has become a reality. But looking back at this time capsule of a film, I’m also struck by how openly misogynistic and inaudibly homophobic our Black “liberators” were.
Although the dais included Coretta Scott King, Betty Shabazz, and Kellee Patterson, all three could have been stereotypical beauty queens. In the film, Ms. King rises from her seat only to wave at her loyal subjects, and Ms. Shabazz is cast as the hallowed widow whose job is but to introduce the young Civil Rights prince Jesse Louis Jackson.
Greaves’ lens does capture Queen Mother Moore arguing for reparations, but she is relegated to doing so in a lobby, far from the main stage. And another trailblazing woman, the soon-to-be elected Representative from Texas Barbara Jordan, stands (literally and ironically) in the wings — on stairs leading to the dais. It was not until after Jordan’s death that people acknowledged her same-gender-loving identity, so we can assume that the organizers caged any notion of sexual orientation at their historic rally on behalf of self-determination.
Perhaps the most sexist aspect of the Convention and its prime political failure was its refusal to endorse Congressperson Shirley Chisholm for president. “They could not support me because I was a woman,” she says in Shola Lynch’s film “Chisholm ‘72 – Unbought and Unbossed.” In the days of tough-talking sex icons Foxy Brown and Cleopatra Jones, the equally tough, if more cerebral, Shirley Chisholm called Representative Walter Fauntroy, who refused to support her, “that bastard!”
In “Nationtime,” speakers debate strategy – whether to form a separate Black political party or to build Black influence within the Democratic party – power commensurate with the number of Black voters.
When the 1972 delegates were arguing this issue, there were only 13 Black members of Congress. Today 56 members of Congress identify as Black, including the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, James Clyburn. Many of the 56 members represent districts that don’t have a majority of Black voters. And we can look back with pride on having elected the nation’s first Black president.
The November 2020 election results, so far, show how much more diverse our new crop of elected officials will be. American citizens have elected the following candidates for U.S. Congress—African-Korean Marilyn Strickland and two men who identify as LGBTQ+, Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres.
Some races remain undecided – and may create additional firsts – including that of African-Latina Candace Valenzuela for Congress and, of course, for Vice President, Kamala Harris. Their candidacies remind us that the Democratic Party — if not our nation as a whole — is far more embracing of diversity than the leadership depicted in “Nationtime.”
Wayne Young is publisher of Port Of Harlem magazine, portofharlem.net and president of the Port Of Harlem Gambian Education Partnership, pohgep.net.