By Erick Johnson, Gary Crusader
Something magical was in the air on Tuesday, November 7, 1967. Fifty years ago, as fall settled in on a chilly evening a young, ambitious, 34-year-old Black activist in Gary, Indiana named Richard Gordon Hatcher, stunned America and defeated Joseph Radigan, a Republican backed by Gary’s Democratic organization. The wheels of momentum were turning for Hatcher, who in the mayoral primary defeated Gary Mayor Martin N. Katz, a prominent politician whose stellar reputation went back years, as a judge in a city where Blacks had little political power. With both Republicans and white Democrats against him, there were doubts that Hatcher could win the general election and crash the white political fraternity that ruled Gary for 42 years.
The doubters were wrong.
This month there will be celebrations across America’s heartland to mark the 50th Anniversary of the historic election of Hatcher, who along with another Black mayor, Cleveland’s Carl Stokes, ushered in an era of Black Political Power in Black America.
But to mark their achievements some 50 years later is to celebrate 500 Black mayors across the country who have followed in Hatcher’s and Stokes’ footsteps 50 years later. Since 1968, some 82 of them have served in 39 of America’s biggest cities spread across the nation’s four regions, according to an analysis by the Gary Crusader.
The road to this milestone began with Hatcher. Back then Gary had never had a Black man or woman in its highest political office. In a city where Blacks helped build the fortunes of Gary’s steel companies, its downtown for years was off limits to people of color.
Like many cities across America, Gary was segregated and the Little Calumet River served as the dividing line between Black and white neighborhoods. One third of Gary was made up of slums where Blacks were forced to live as they relocated to the city during the second wave of the Great Migration.
But times were changing in the Steel City. Once a predominately white city, Blacks in Gary grew to be 53 percent of the city’s 175,415 population. The white population dwindled to just 39 percent. As the Jackson family lit up America, the Civil Rights Movement was slowly making its way to the shores of Lake Michigan where Black Power was simmering in Gary.
At the center of the political shift was Hatcher, a fierce crusader who launched a campaign for mayor to rid Black neighborhoods of slums, and address a critical housing problem that festered for years under the city’s white political establishment.
Despite Radigan’s vast political support from Democrats and Republicans, Hatcher defeated him by 1,389 votes. Not only did Hatcher become Gary’s first Black mayor and the first Black elected mayor of a large American City, he also became the first Black mayor in the conservative, Republican state of Indiana, where there were efforts to revive the Klu Klux Klan, which had deep ties in many towns.
Hours after Hatcher won, Carl Stokes became the first Black mayor of Cleveland some 317 miles away. To this day, Hatcher is considered the first Black elected mayor of a large city while Stokes was the first Black mayor of a major city.
Together they were trailblazers who 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, it’s a movement that’s still going decades after Gary started a Black Power political movement that would change America forever.
Many of these great Black mayors are gone, including Stokes who died in 1996. But 50 years after that historic election night, the fire is still burning for Hatcher, an enduring political icon who is once again in the national spotlight as political leaders everywhere mark the most significant turning point for Blacks in Gary’s history.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman Wilson was seven years old the night Hatcher won the election.
“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. 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.”
Four years later after his stunning victory, Hatcher cemented Gary as the capital of Black political power when it hosted the historic 1972 Black Political Convention. For Hatcher, it was another milestone that secured his legacy as one of the city’s iconic political figures.
On Saturday, November 4, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, the City Of Gary, Councilwoman Ragen Hatcher and the Hatcher Anniversary Planning Committee will present “A Day To Remember.” It will be a grand celebration to honor former Mayor Hatcher on his becoming the first elected Black mayor in the United States of America. The celebration will be held at 6 p.m. at the West Side High School Theatre, 900 Gerry in Gary.
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 Hatcher’s impact has been felt far beyond Gary.
There were several Black mayors who led small cities before 1968, but they were mostly appointed or chosen by a city council. When Hatcher and Stokes were elected in 1968, their victories represented Black political power that was boosted by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The legislations approved by President Lyndon B. Johnson spawned Black voter participation and lifted the politi- cal aspirations of Blacks after years of segregation.
Many of these mayors were elected by large Black voting populations that moved to major cities during the Great Migration. With the help of federal laws protecting voting rights, they threw their weight behind Black candidates who sought to address housing and unemployment issues that white city leaders had long ignored.
This was happening in Gary and Cleveland as political power shifted in Midwest towns. Black Power would spark a wave of Black Mayors in some major Midwest cities in the next decade. They included Ted Berry of Cincinnati (1972), and Coleman Young of Detroit (1973). Then there were some surprise victories in cities where winning the Black electorate was not enough to win City Hall. Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson in 1973 became the city’s first Black mayor after he was elected with 60 percent of the vote that included white liberals/moderates and African Americans. That same year, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley pulled off a stunning victory when the then, third largest city elected him as the first Black mayor despite the city being predominately white.
By 1976, there were a total of 91 Black mayors in America, according to the book “Profiles of Black Mayors in America,” published by Chicago’s iconic Johnson Publishing Company and the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington, D.C.
In the 1980s, bigger city Black mayors were elected in Memphis (1982), Chicago (1983), Philadelphia (1984), Baltimore (1987), New York City (1989) and Seattle. In the next decade, Black mayors would also be elected in St. Louis (1993), Minneapolis (1994), Dallas (1995) and San Francisco (1996).
Today, there are 500 Black mayors across the country, according to the African American Mayors Association. In the last 50 years, 82 Black mayors have served in 39 of the nation’s biggest cities, according to the Gary Crusader analysis. The South, once a hotbed of segregation, holds the lead with 25 Black mayors. The Midwest has had a total of 21 Black mayors; the North has had 20; and the West 16.
Stephanie R. Mash, Executive Director with the African American Mayors Association in Washington, D.C., said Hatcher and Stokes were trailblazers because they had to build coalitions to help them cross racial lines.
“Hatcher came in at a high time in Gary. His legacy and contribution to Gary is important for the young generation to understand,” Mash said. “He is still such a force.”
While much progress has been made, Blacks still have a ways to go. Sixty-one of America’s major cities have never had a Black mayor. They include Phoenix, San Diego, San Jose, Indianapolis, Boston, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Tampa, Orlando and Miami. Many of these cities have large white and Hispanic populations or Republican voters who far outnumber their Black electorate.
In Boston’s mayoral election next week, Tito Jackson is campaigning for affordable housing and needy residents, but he faces an uphill battle against incumbent Marty Walsh, who is highly favored in opinion polls. Walsh is also backed by the city’s status quo and daily newspaper, the Boston Globe despite a, 218-page NAACP report that gave the mayor failing marks on his promises to help Boston’s Black neighborhoods.
In St. Louis, Tishaura Jones lost an intense campaign for mayor against her white opponent Lyda Krewson, despite the city’s racial tensions in recent years.
Despite the tough political climate there are currently16 Black mayors in the nation’s 100 largest cities. The biggest of these is Houston, where Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Harvard Law School graduate was elected in 2016. There are also Black mayors in Denver, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Atlanta and Cleveland.
In the nation’s 67th largest city-Stockton, California, Michael Tubbs, a Black Stanford University graduate who grew up poor, made history in 2016 after he was elected as the city’s youngest mayor at 26. Only 12 percent of Stockton’s 307,057 population is Black. Forty-one percent is Hispanic and 21 percent of its residents are white.