From the Left



Gary's first black mayor helped launch a post-civil rights era

By Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

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 Jackson, Coretta Scott King, Rep. Shirley Chisholm, D-N.Y., 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, Hatcher became more involved in the Democratic Party, serving as vice chairman of the National Democratic Committee and leader of Jackson's two presidential campaigns in the 1980s.

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 Hatcher's death, "and not run away from your blackness and still win."

Indeed, as the years since 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.


(E-mail Clarence Page at



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