Now, at a time in which we actually look back at the election of the nation’s first black president as a moment in history, this is an appropriate time for us Americans to ponder Mr. Hatcher’s legacy and Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous question: “Where do we go from here?”
For 20 years — or five terms in office — Mr. Hatcher tried in vain to curb poverty and blight in Gary, a steel town that already was losing its jobs, tax base and population at an alarming rate in the national steel crisis of the 1960s and ’70s.
Mr. Hatcher took his campaign national, at first out of need. After he beat incumbent Mayor Martin Katz in the Democratic primary election, leaders of the local party machine refused to support him in the general election unless he allowed them to choose the city’s police chief and fill other important administrative offices.
He refused their conditions and traveled out of town to raise campaign funds. As mayor, he continued to speak out nationally on political and urban development issues, speaking alongside Dr. King, Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, among other leaders.
“Gary is a rising sun,” he said in his first inaugural address. “Together we shall beat a way. Together we shall turn darkness into light, despair into hope and promise into progress.”
Alas, it was not to be. The city continued to bleed jobs, residents and tax revenue. The steel town founded in 1906 by U.S. Steel Chairman Elbert H. Gary surged up and plummeted down as its industry did through boom-and-bust cycles.
Mr. Hatcher was a central figure in the historical event known as the National Black Political Convention or the “Gary Convention,” in March 1972. As a young reporter who covered that event in Gary, I remember it as the biggest gathering of black political leaders that I had seen outside of a national party convention — or, for that matter, inside of one.
Among others, there were Mr. Jackson, Coretta Scott King, Rep. Shirley Chisholm, a New York Democrat who was running for president, and Black Panther leader Bobby Seale. Entertainers James Brown and Harry Belafonte performed and Muhammad Ali served as a sergeant-at-arms.
The convention was intended to develop a “black agenda” of some sort to answer King’s question of where the movement would go from here. Some interesting debates were held on the value of integrated coalition-building vs. go-it-alone black nationalism. But the document that they produced was long-winded and eloquently vague in my view. It offered just enough of an ambitious agenda to allow everyone to say they were energized and eager to take the next steps toward black empowerment.
Still, it is important to remember the times. The post-civil rights era had set in. Racially segregated public facilities were no longer legal. But bread-and-butter issues such as jobs, schools, housing and child nutrition were rising in importance, particularly for cities with shrinking tax bases and deteriorating housing stock like Gary.
Although the agenda produced by the black convention called for African Americans to break away into more separate black-focused political organizations, Mr. Hatcher became more involved in the Democratic Party, serving as vice chairman of the National Democratic Committee and leader of Mr. Jackson’s two presidential campaigns in the 1980s.
Mr. Hatcher’s legacy as a “first” is valuable today for the lessons it offers to new generations of ambitious politicians, particularly those who follow in the mold of, say, Chicago’s late Mayor Harold Washington or former President Barack Obama.
“You can run as a black person in a majority-white jurisdiction,” Ravi Perry, chair of Howard University’s political science department, said on NPR’s “All Things Considered” after Mr. Hatcher’s death, “and not run away from your blackness and still win.”
Indeed, as the years since Mr. Hatcher’s mayoralty turn into decades, his most important lessons may be not in how well he served as a leader of African Americans but how effectively he was able to win the cooperation of others.