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On November 7, 1967 the world would change forever. That was the day Barack Obama, Jesse Jackson, Harold Washington, Maynard Jackson and Marion Barry were all born. No, they were not all born that day biologically but that day marked the birth of their possibility. November 7, 1967 was the first time in American history that a Black person was elected mayor of a city, with a population over 100,000. Carl Stokes was elected in Cleveland and Richard Hatcher was elected mayor of Gary, Indiana, that fateful day. Hatcher not only fought for votes but against an entire white world that prayed and worked towards his demise. Through it all he stood firm, fearless and strong. Richard Hatcher has now transitioned.
Hatcher was an attorney, activist, politician, husband and father. The world he encountered wasn’t ready for him but it didn’t matter — Hatcher was determined to press the issue. In 1963 Hatcher was elected to Gary’s City Council, the first and only freshman to be elected president of the Council. At that time, Blacks in the city were still restricted with respect to where they could live. Seriously. Hatcher was instrumental in passing an open housing law, which put and end to restrictive property covenants that forced Blacks to live primarily in Gary’s midtown section. The world wasn’t ready for that but Hatcher defiantly pushed even harder; he decided to run for mayor.
Gary had a population of roughly 175,000 at that time and just over half were Black. Whites made up the majority of Gary voters, however. Hatcher fought hard and won the Democratic primary, in a city where a Republican hadn’t been elected mayor since 1938. Still, the Democratic Party opted to support Hatcher’s Republican challenger. Hatcher still won and kept winning, serving five full terms as mayor of Gary. From day one, however, Hatcher was forced not only to solve the city’s problems but also combat clear racism. “There’s almost a vested interest among a lot of powerful business people, the tax assessors and other county officials who keep business taxes low here, in proving that a city run by a Black will fail,” he once said. Being first is never easy. To be Black and first takes a strength and moral character that very few possess.
Even as he seemingly fought an entire hateful world, Hatcher accomplished the grand and mundane. He was able to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid for subsidized housing and job training programs. Hatcher expanded Gary’s airport, repaved severely neglected streets and introduced regular garbage collection to many Black neighborhoods, for the first time. The latter not only improved sanitation and public health but also, sent a clear signal to Black people — taxpayers — that they were in fact citizens, too. Hatcher was fighting the world, fighting for Gary but also, fighting for Black people in a universal way. That is why he hosted the National Black Political Convention in Gary, in 1972. Roughly 10,000 Black people came together to discuss pathways forward. Among the goals stated at the Convention was to increase the number of Blacks elected to office. Name a Black political figure of significance in the modern era and you will name a seed of that movement and that man, Richard Hatcher.
Perhaps chief among Hatcher’s accomplishments is his status as a father. Ragen Hatcher currently serves in the Indiana House of Representatives. Rachelle Hatcher is an attorney fiercely committed to defending the poor and vulnerable. Renee is also an attorney, who serves as Director of the Community Enterprise & Solidarity Economy Clinic at the UIC John Marshall Law School. Ragen has said her father’s election served as a “springboard for others to feel like they could do it.” Richard Hatcher convinced an entire generation of Black leaders that they could do it but more importantly, his three daughters — that is the true mark of a man.