Gary's first black mayor helped launch a post-civil rights era
He was the last of the firsts.
That's probably how Richard Gordon Hatcher, one of the nation's first black elected big-city mayors, most often will be remembered.
Hatcher died Friday night at age 86 in Mercy Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago. He was elected mayor of Gary at age 34 on Nov. 7, 1967, the same day as Cleveland's Carl Stokes, who died in 1996.
Both made history as the first black men to be elected mayors of American cities with more than 100,000 population. Now both are gone. Hatcher was the last of "the firsts" as a black mayor.
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 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 -- 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.
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 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.