Black Mayors, Black Politics, and the Gary Convention

tags: African American history, political history, urban history, National Black Political Convention, Gary Convention

Brandon Stokes is a doctoral candidate in the Department of African American & African Diaspora Studies. His research focus is on housing and urban development concerning African Americans on Chicago’s Southside with an emphasis on the intersection of race and class. Brandon will be a Short-Term Fellow this summer for the Black Chicago Research Consortium.

The National Black Political Convention of 1972 saw many national giants on the Black political scene with Amiri Baraka and Jesse Jackson, and the specter of Shirley Chisolm’s run for president, all coalesce in one place. The adage of all politics is local could not have been more apt as Mayor Richard Hatcher’s city of Gary played host to the convention. Through the eyes of Mayor Hatcher, we can see the plight of the Black Mayors of urban cities and the civil rights era that ushered in Black mayors in urban epicenters. The National Black Political Convention in Gary served as an ominous cloud over the pyrrhic victory of Black mayors, starting with the city of Gary itself.    

The tragedy of Richard Hatcher’s reign as Gary’s mayor begins with the story of trying to save Gary from implosion. After receiving his BA from Indiana University and subsequently his JD from Valparaiso University, Hatchet moved to Gary in 1963, and in 1965 won the election to Gary’s City Council. He ran for mayor in 1967 and unseated a white mayor. This election was not only historic in that Hatcher was the first Black mayor of a city with a population over 100,000, but began a trend of Black people exercising political power in a post-Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act world. Hatcher’s victory spurred wins in other Rust Belt cities like Cleveland, Newark, and Detroit. However, Hatcher’s victory did not usher in reform in Gary but instead led to white backlash.

Gary began as a city formed to house steelworkers in the early twentieth century, mostly white, and the industry attracted Black migrants from the South as part of the Great Migration looking for a better life. The Black population steadily grew, leading to the election of Hatcher. Whites left the city in droves, taking many businesses with them, and turned the downtown area into a barren wasteland. The steel industry that powered Gary began a steep decline as deindustrialization began in the United States, taking many of the jobs that helped create the middle class down with it. In 1971, Hatcher attempted to annex neighboring unincorporated Merrillville to regain some lost white population and businesses. However, Indiana gave Merrillville a special exemption to incorporate, leaving Hatcher with nothing. Hatcher needed something to jumpstart the city of Gary, and in 1972 opportunity arose. 

The 1972 presidential election year was a pivotal year in Black politics. African Americans were weary of four years of conservative Nixon policies, emphasizing “law & order” and wanted to exercise the full power of citizenship. Activists and Black leaders conversed with each other about focusing and setting a Black political agenda. The Black leaders formulated a plan of staging a political convention with the primary focus of setting a unified Black political agenda. Black leaders needed a city to host this political convention. Many cities were weary of having large gatherings of African Americans. Stereotypes of African American violence came to the fore from the discussions after the urban uprisings after the assignation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. Mayor Hatcher volunteered Gary as the host city. Hosting the convention would give Gary national attention while simultaneously reinvigorating the city, as deindustrialization took a toll.

Read entire article at Black Perspectives

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