GARY — Richard G. Hatcher’s 1967 win as the city’s first African American mayor stunned the political world and sent shock waves throughout the community, the state and the rest of the nation.
That year was a game-changer for African American communities as he and Carl Stokes, mayor of Cleveland, became the first two black elected officials of mid-sized American cities.
“You were a disruptor, Mayor Hatcher,” the Gary Crusader’s longtime publisher Dorothy R. Leavell said Wednesday. “When nobody will disturb the norm, a disruptor who knows what it ought to be will come in and speak truth to power. It’s the greatest compliment I can give to you.”
Leavell’s comment came outside City Hall on Wednesday, where city leaders, family and supporters gathered to unveil a life-size bronze statue honoring the mayor’s legacy in Gary.
The statue, sculpted by Gary Tillery with the Fine Art Studio of Rotblatt & Amrany, captures Hatcher in mid-stride in the 1960s during his historic campaign and election.
The inscription notes his accomplishments as a civil rights luminary and adviser to presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter on civil rights issues and urban policy.
It states Hatcher's reach extended beyond the city limits, serving as the inaugural chairman of the Board of TransAfrica, an organization that fought to end apartheid in South Africa and free Nelson Mandela from prison.
Renee Hatcher, his youngest daughter, said the statute is an important piece of telling the story of Hatcher, a former city councilman, civil rights activist and five-term mayor of Gary.
“And the story of Hatcher is really the story of Gary,” she said.
Hatcher’s time in Gary was marked by the city hosting the first-ever National Black Political Convention in the 1970s. The longtime civil rights activist also fought hard to desegregate the city’s housing structures and its neighborhoods.
Countless speakers shared stories of Hatcher’s legacy.
Lake County Councilman Charlie Brown, D-Gary, who arrived in Gary in 1961 as a school teacher, said he was approached by Hatcher’s campaign manager to organize the teachers union behind him. It was an absurd ask in that day and age, he said.
“I was hesitant, but he gave some convincing arguments. And unbelievably, we were able to organize the teachers to come out and support him for mayor. It was unprecedented, at the time, for teachers to get involved in politics,” Brown said.
He said Hatcher was a trailblazer in many ways, including his creation of opportunities for young men and women through the Richard Hatcher Youth Foundation.
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Hatcher’s win ignited a movement that led to other African Americans seeking political office across the U.S., including the city of Gary’s current mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson. Her win in 2011 made her the city’s first black female mayor, and the first in the state.
Freeman-Wilson said she first met Hatcher at the age of 7 while he was on the campaign trail for mayor in 1967. He was attending a house party in her parents' basement in Gary — in an era where winning elections meant you went door to door to get to know the community.
“And when he talked about (his campaign and aspirations), I thought to myself that sounds like something I want to do,” Freeman-Wilson said. “Well, it took about 40 years but I had that opportunity and it is in no small part due to the trailblazing vision and the work of this great man.”
Gary activist Carolyn McCrady thanked Hatcher for looking out for those less fortunate during his time in office decades ago.
“When NIPSCO was throwing people out of their homes in the middle of winter, because they couldn’t pay their bills … (Hatcher) used the power of his office to let people know that NIPSCO was wrong, and the people were right,” McCrady said.
After a nearly two-hour program filled with speakers, more than 300 people crowded on the lawn in front of City Hall to see the unveiled piece.
Hatcher, 86, leaned over and whispered, “Wow. There’s so many people here,” to one of his daughters.
Later, he told reporters he was “in awe” of the turnout.
Jonathan Jackson, social justice activist and son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, was one of the featured speakers.
He said Hatcher faced many obstacles and confronted “enormous odds” during his time in office — including a loss of steel industry jobs, rising violent crime and white flight.
“Mayor Hatcher comes out of a lineage, not just as an elected official, but a freedom fighter. He actually believed black folks could lead, govern and manage her own affairs,” Jackson said. "Ladies and gentlemen, why do we need this statue today? For generations of children yet unborn that will come behind him."
Born into poverty in Michigan City, Hatcher attended Indiana University in Bloomington and study law at Valparaiso University School of Law before he entered politics. His mother was a factory worker and his father manufactured rail cars.
By the time he left City Hall in 1988, more than 300 African Americans held office in cities all across the country.