Gary, Indiana, Mayor Richard Hatcher joined his ancestors on Dec. 13, after a long and distinguished career in public service. He also made a sacrifice and did this reporter a big, big favor some 40 years ago.
Both he and Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes were elected on Nov. 7, 1967. They were the first Black mayors of major towns with populations above 100,000. Gary is just a little town by comparison to big old Cleveland, but the celebrations in both places were sincere and earned.
Mr. Hatcher, though, was hands down the most progressive Black mayor (for 20 years), and he also served a time as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee in the 1980s. His singular achievement, though was in wooing and presiding over the National Black Political Convention, held in Gary in 1972.
It was a time of growing expectations among Black folks. The tiny Congressional Black Caucus was only two years old and had only a dozen or so members at the time.
Culture, and militant politics were sweeping through Black America, and the 1972 convention was right on time. It became known as the “Gary Convention.” About 10,000 attended. That was monumental.
The convention issued the famous “Gary Declaration” which declared that the U.S. political system was failing Black folks, and that the only way out of that pickle was a speedy transition to independent Black politics. That strategy worked for a while and empowered quite a few politicians, but then Black folks got sucked back into the “loyal Democratic Party” column, and things have been stuck there for some time, with the Black vote remaining critical to any Democratic Party success, while at the same time being ignored and/or pushed aside whenever the conversation about “electability” (meaning the ability appeal to white voters) is raised.
Mayor Hatcher never lost his edge, so far as I could see. He swept into office against fierce opposition from the Lake County, Indiana, white Democratic establishment which backed his Republican opponent, when he refused to allow the party bosses to name his police chief and city attorney, among other positions.
The opposition from the Lake County (suburban) Democrats was enormous and ongoing. When I lived in Chicago in the early 1970s, my friend Al Johnson, a public relations operative, turned journalist, was one who volunteered to work on campaigns against Mr. Hatcher, because Al was able to finagle a concealed-carry gun permit from county officials.
“Richard Hatcher is battling bigotry and ignorance. And he needs your help,” Mr. Hatcher wrote in an infamous advertisement in The New York Times which jump-started his campaign, attracting outside money and massive public attention to his race.
“Gary is a rising sun,” he said in his inaugural address. “Together, we shall beat a way; together we shall turn darkness into light, despair into hope and promise into progress.”
And he did it, attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money into Gary, for low-cost housing, job training, street paving, even delivering regular garbage collection to many neighborhoods for the first time.
Richard Gordon Hatcher, one of 13 children whose father molded railroad car wheels, and whose mother was a factory worker, was an unselfish servant.
I will never forget one afternoon in 1979, during the tense Iran-hostage standoff. President Jimmy Carter held a press conference in the East Room, but did not call on a single Black reporter, though many troubling issues were of vital interest to Black folks throughout the country.
Tamu White, then a reporter for WHUR-FM News, and I were upset about the turn of events because immediately after the press conference, he was hosting a reception for the National Conference of Black Mayors, which was meeting in Washington. Tamu and I literally hid in the bushes along the curved walkway from the White House Northwest Gate to the Portico entrance, facing Pennsylvania Avenue.
When the first two mayors walked up, Tamu and I sprang out from the bushes. It was Mayor Hatcher and D.C. Mayor Marion Barry of together. We practically sobbed, pleading our cause: “The president didn’t call on any Black reporters … boo-hoo-hoo.”
Well, at the next press conference, a couple of weeks later, Carter called on three Black reporters — myself included — in one conference. I later learned that Mr. Hatcher had used his “turn in line” to speak to the president to convey our complaint about being ignored. That was a selfless gesture, and I am forever grateful for that kind of performance, above and beyond the call of duty, which was the measure of Richard Hatcher throughout his public career.