“Nobody will save us but us.” Richard Gordon Hatcher
On November 4, fifty years after Richard Hatcher became the first African American elected mayor of a significantly sized city, an event honoring him will take place at Gary West Side High School, scene of the historic 1972 National Black Political Convention. Planners, who include Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and Councilwoman Ragen Hatcher, are hoping for appearances by Reverend Jesse Jackson, Minister Louis Farrakhan, entertainer Harry Belafonte, TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson, and Urban League CEO Marc Morial. The Calumet Regional Archives has been providing photos. At a previous testimonial dinner a few years ago, I was a featured speaker and for the occasion donned a pinstripe suit purchased for ten dollars at Goodwill.
One of my few political heroes (Bobby Kennedy and Barack Obama also come to mind), Hatcher, 84, served the city as a civil rights attorney, councilman-at-large, and mayor for five four-year terms, despite unrelenting opposition. I spent close to one hundred hours interviewing him for several projects, including an oral history of his administration, and we still frequently speak on the phone or when we run into each other. As recently as last year, interviewed in the Calumet Regional Archives for a four-hour Bicentennial history of Indiana, Hatcher could vividly recall threats on his life when he challenged Gary’s Democratic machine and supporters celebrating outside his campaign headquarters far into the night when election results confirmed the outcome. In “Gary’s First Hundred years,” I concluded:
During Hatcher’s first days in office his staff was burdened with
constituent requests for interviews, guided tours of City Hall and answers to homework questions. One woman wanted to know whether the mayor could marry couples, another whether he could get an errant husband out of the house. With a bankrupt treasury, eroding tax base, state-imposed limitations to home rule, and a wary business community, Hatcher moved cautiously in personnel matters, retaining many holdovers from the A. Martin Katz administration, in part because so few African Americans qualified for department-level jobs. One adviser compared the situation to an African colony, where a national liberation regime needed the old bureaucracy to run public services.
In “African-American Mayors: Race, Politics, and the American City,” edited by David R. Colburn and Jeffrey S. Adler, I concluded that Hatcher transcended the limits of black political power by using the mayor’s office as a forum for articulating the needs of black people in Gary, in the nation, and in the world. Indeed, as chairman of TransAfrica, he participated in efforts that played a role in ending apartheid in South Africa. So long as he was mayor, Gary was newsworthy, relevant, and considered an important gauge of how majority-black rustbelt cities were faring. I wrote:
Hatcher might, in a different time or place, have become as important a city resource as, say, Baltimore’s Kurt Schmoke or Birmingham’s Richard Arrington. Instead, Hatcher was demonized by those who, in all likelihood, would have relocated to suburban environs no matter who controlled city hall. He left office, as he had entered it, unbossed, unbought, and with head unbowed.
Connie Mack-Ward commented:
Although I didn't meet Mayor Hatcher until after I was hired by the Commission for Women, with his assent, I served him as a department head - the only white woman department head - for nearly nine years. I respected him immensely. His national and even international responsibility for the increased involvement, visibility, and influence of blacks in politics and other arenas still goes largely unrecognized. He is passionate about civil rights - everyone's civil rights. Personally, he is an outstanding example and role model as a husband, father, and friend. He is innately a gentleman. He has a tremendous capacity for hard work and inspired so many of us to give our all to the city and its citizens. And he's simply one of the most decent human beings it's been my pleasure and honor to know. Through him, I had opportunities to meet people and have experiences that are rarely available to white people, and my life has been deeply enriched by it. I am forever and profoundly grateful.
Benjamin Franklin Chavis, Jr., was a delegate from North Carolina to the 1972 West Side National Black Political Convention. Previously, in the port city of Wilmington, Chavis had helped organize a Black People’s Union Party, dedicated to a broad political and social agenda. He recalled:
When we first saw the sign saying “Welcome to Gary” and got to downtown Gary, we thought we were in a different country. Given the backdrop of all the Nixon repression going on, to see the red, black, and green streamers welcoming the National Black Political Convention was a fulfillment of what a lot of our dreams were.
In “The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s,” Kenneth Robert Janken notes that it was shortly after Chavis returned from the National Black Political Convention, he and others were framed on trumped-up charges of fire-bombing a grocery after police shot a black teenager. Using fabricated witness statements, prosecutors obtained convictions against all ten. Despite a lifelong commitment to nonviolent forms of civil disobedience, Chavis received a 34-year sentence. He was paroled by the governor in 1979, and the following year a federal appeals court overturned the conviction on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct. By then, several witnesses had recanted. Chavis went on to become vice president of the National Council of Churches, executive director of the NAACP, and national director of the Million Man March. In 1997 he joined the Nation of Islam and took the surname Muhammad.
Reviewing “The Wilmington Ten” in the September 2017 Journal of American History (JAH), Komozi Woodard wrote:
The old threadbare arguments that black power was extremely short lived and that it destroyed the civil rights revolution in 1968 is losing ground to the new thesis that black power developed into a mass movement in the 1970s. Janken shows the complicated ways the 1970s Black revolt took up the unfinished civil rights agenda, especially its attempts to resist white terror. In the old paradigm, the narrative closes with school desegregation; in the new thesis, school desegregation introduces the next stage of a protracted youth struggle, including the massive involvement of high school students.
The September 2017 JAH also includes a review by Kenneth Bindas of Ronald Cohen’s “Depression Folk: Grassroots Music and Leftwing Politics in 1930s America.” Seemingly obsessed with the trendy (in scholarly circles) “holy trinity” of race, class, and gender, Bindas, after admitting, “Make no mistake, Cohen knows his folk music,” quibbles with his failure to discuss, in his words, “jazz or swing as urban folk music and its close affinity to the issues of race and class.”
On the way to Penney’s in Valparaiso, several police cars and fire trucks passed me with sirens blaring. After I bought a pair of slacks and four pairs of MSX “No Fly” briefs, I found traffic slowed by an accident of Route 49. Several cars were by the side of the highway, an ambulance was pulling out, and a semi was overturned in a ditch. Next day, after bowling a 474 series, as the Electrical Engineers won two games and series, I came upon the scene of a horrific accident at the intersection of Route 149 and County Road 700 in South Haven. A Grand Prix was not only caved in on the driver’s side, but all its windows were knocked out. Next morning, I read that the driver had died after allegedly running a red light. To my shock, I learned that the victim was Irline Holley, a former librarian at Portage Library. A flatbed truck loaded with cement had plowed into her. I feel sorry for the truck driver, who has to live with that terrible memory.
As head of the local history room, Irline Holley was of invaluable help when I was putting together a history of Portage. She was a lovely person and, 30 years ago, one of the founders of the Portage Historical Society, along with Jaclyn Macedo, Carl Fisher, Terry Jarosak, and a few others. Whenever I spoke to the group or attended one of its functions, I’d look for her, but a bad back limited her mobility and thus her participation. Nonetheless, she found time to be of use to many people in need. Her obit mentioned:
Irline loved rescuing dogs and treated them like her babies. She even took her dogs to the Golden Living Center Nursing Home to help comfort the residents. Irline volunteered for Meals on Wheels. In her free time, she enjoyed reading and gardening.
Sports Illustrated carried an excerpt from Rich Cohen’s “The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse” about former Cub first baseman Eddie Waitkus, shot in 1949 by a disturbed woman who had once been a fanatical admirer. At the time Waitkus was playing for the Philadelphia Phillies, so, at age 7, I was familiar with the incident but not the details. Rich Cohen, describing assailant Ruth Ann Steinhagen as a Baseball Annie, wrote:
She’d grown up in Cicero, Ill., where she fixated on one celebrity after another. First the actor Alan Ladd, then the Our Gang actor and Cubs outfielder Peanuts Lowrey, finally Waitkus. She would stand outside the Cubs clubhouse, hoping to see him, get his autograph. He’d talked to her a few times. She read up on him in the sports pages. She lived with her parents then, and her sister. The walls of her room were covered with pictures of Eddie. She’d found a copy of his high school yearbook and studied Lithuanian so she’d understand the language of his grandparents. She told her mother about Waitkus - she referred to him as “Eddie”—speaking as if he were a boyfriend. Me and Eddie this. Me and Eddie that. At some point, she began talking about the wedding. “Me and Eddie are gonna get married.”
Angry at Waitkus for leaving the Cubs (not that he had any say in the matter), she decided if she couldn’t have him, then nobody would. She lured him to a hotel room with a note left at the front desk where he was staying, claiming she had something important to tell him, and shot him in the chest. He recovered in time to play in all 154 games for my beloved 1950 “Whiz Kids,” the National League champs; and but, according to Cohen, was permanently scarred by the incident and died at age 53. At the time, Steinhagen, having been declared insane and consigned to a mental hospital for three years, was leading a quiet life.