Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Crisis Management

“You'll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You'll forget the sun in his jealous sky
As we walk in fields of gold.”
         Sting, “Fields of Gold”
 Richard Hatcher in 1968

Last week in his Indiana History class Steve McShane discussed the 1967 Gary election in which Richard Gordon Hatcher become America’s first black mayor. Hatcher was in constant crisis management mode his first couple years in office, whether it was a school boycott, a Council confrontation with gang members, a much exaggerated crime epidemic as reported in the Post-Tribune, a firemen’s strike, a dis-annexation effort by Glen park residents and even a so-called Eat-in at the Gary Armory by young people protesting the reactionary policies of Governor James Whitcomb who helped themselves to food that had been put out on banquet tables.

Therefore, I decided to talk to Steve’s students about the aftermath in the city of the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968.  While King’s death was not as shocking as the killing of JFK five years before, it was every bit as traumatic and caused many to fear the nation was coming apart.  A Maryland grad student, I vividly recall the riots that broke out all over the country and questioned whether King’s dream of “black and white together” would ever become a reality.  Leafing through my oral history of the Hatcher administration, I came upon the remembrances of Hatcher’s executive secretary Ray Wild whom I interviewed in 1988.  Born in New Jersey, he moved to Chicago to attend the Goodman School of Drama.  Just 32 years old in 1968, Wild had previously worked for Illinois Congressman Sidney Yates and had been Illinois treasurer Adlai Stevenson III’s chief of staff.  He was one of several idealists who, sacrificing a much higher salary, moved to Gary in order to help provide expertise to the incoming 35 year-old black mayor. 

Wild was representative of the third generation of what I call urban missionaries or, to their detractors, outside agitators.  First came settlement workers anxious to Americanize the children of Eastern European immigrants and teachers eager to be part of William A. Wirt’s progressive school system. A generation later, labor organizers helped steelworkers achieve union recognition and, ultimately decent wages and benefits that allowed their families to enjoy a middle class lifestyle. 

At the moment King was shot Wild was meeting with a couple of Bobby Kennedy’s aides in a City Hall conference room, who wanted Hatcher to campaign with RFK in Indianapolis.  The phone rang, and the Mayor’s secretary called Wild into the Mayor’s office where he learned from radio reports of King’s death.  Hatcher was in Chicago giving a speech at the Chatham YMCA when Wild reached him with the terrible news.  While the mayor hurriedly returned to Gary, Wild prepared a statement on his behalf.

Wild recalled:

He was comfortable with it and changed one word.  I had used the phrase “our country.”  He crossed out “our” and put in “this.”  I thought that was revelatory.  That night, he got out into the city.  He was doing a lot of street corner counseling.  Wherever he saw a knot of people, he’d stop and talk.  He enlisted the help of some athletes from Roosevelt High [who had been members of the state championship basketball team].

The whole weekend, in retrospect, was very well coordinated in terms of keeping the city secure.  Steps were taken to prohibit the sale of gas in containers.  It was done sensitively.  The police were sensitized to the delicacy of the situation.

About 3:30 that morning the Mayor got a call from the White House.  Would he come to Washington?  He didn’t want to leave the city, but the President was making the request, so he did go.  He told me later that they were seated at a conference table, with the President at the head, saying to assembled black leaders, “Appeal to your people.”  Richard was thinking, “Appeal to your people.”  But he kept quiet because he realized the man was under some pressure.

During the course of this meeting a Presidential aide reported on the situation in the nation’s capital, which was not looking too terrific.  This put Richard more and more on edge that he was away from Gary.  He was itching to get back.  The last time the aide came in, he said something to the effect that D.C. was secure and under control.  Richard said, “Good.  I’ve got to get back to Gary.”  He was now more and more convinced that at the first spark, substantial parts of the city would go up in flames.

Richard got on the plane, and it took off over the Potomac River.  As they were gaining altitude, he looked out the window and saw parts of Washington in flames.  Then he was anxious, he was pushing the plane back to O’Hare the whole way.  He got back to Gary and didn’t sleep.  He wanted to go to Atlanta for the funeral ceremonies, and asked me to go with him.  I brought a bag to City Hall, but neither of us left the city.  He was out and from time to time would come back with some tacos or something.

Once when Chief Jim Hilton and Councilman Eugene Carrabine were with us, we stopped at a saloon that was a hang-out for hookers and went smacking through the door at one or two in the morning.  Sidearms were hitting the floor and women disappearing up a back staircase.  The bartender ducked down behind the bar.  The mayor stuck out his hand at the first guy he saw and said, “Hello, I’m Richard Hatcher.”  He simply wanted to talk.  This went on wherever he saw a light on.

This weekend, when 117 cities to one degree or another went up [in flames], Gary didn’t.  That was mostly due to the personal, indefatigable diplomacy of the mayor – working, inspiring, channeling the frustration and the anger into some constructive direction.   He was reminding people of who Dr. King was, what he meant to us.  He’d ask questions a lot: “What do you suppose he’d think?  What do you suppose he’d want?”  He was giving little current history lessons speaking from his heart about what was appropriate, what made sense.  He was trying to direct the anger and telling them about Memorial services that were going to be held here or there and how he’d like to see them there.  He was just calming the waters and at the same time recruiting people to be activists in the movement and telling them about appropriate ways they could participate.

In short, Hatcher saved the city from going up in flames – for which the white power structure gave him scant credit.  Subsequently, the banker foolishly gambled that they could move their operations south to Route 30 without jeopardizing their profits or the Region’s economic health.  Seen both as a savior by many blacks and a destroyer by many whites, Hatcher in truth had very little power given the city’s lack of home rule.

Googling Ray Wild’s name, I discovered that he helped organize Hatcher’s 1982 Black Economic Summit and revived his acting career before succumbing to cancer 11 years ago at age 68.  An obit listed longtime Gary activist Connie Mack-Ward as his partner.  Tribune arts reporter Chris Jones wrote: “In numerous storefront theatrical productions in the mid-1990s, the peripatetic Chicago actor Ray Wild was difficult to miss.  He sported a shock of white hair, a booming voice and an intense gaze.  And, usually, he was about 30 years older than any of the other actors on the stage.”
below, Doug Buffone in Hammond, 2011: NWI Times photo by Kyle Telechan

Legendary Chicago Bears linebacker Doug Buffone, the son of an Italian coal miner, died at age 70.  He was a regular on The Score (am 670 on the radio dial) and had a terrific sense of humor.  On WXRT Lin Brehmer interspersed excerpts of Buffone passionately talking football with the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” and Sting’s “Fields of Gold.”
William Allegrezza invited faculty and students to a poetry reading by Kirk Robinson, who lives in Munster and teaches at Calumet College of St. Joseph in Whiting.  In 2011 Rattle magazine published Robinson’s “The Breaks,” about a friend whose wife left him.  The wife told the narrator, “I’m leaving - for good”  while the friend was away.  Later, the two were discussing what happened, and the narrator did not know what to say beyond trite generalizations.  The poem’s final lines go:

All he did was sit there, for the first time, slumped over

in a bar, and cry. “I looked everywhere,” he said,

“for a note.” Everywhere. He kept saying it. What’s the word?

What’s the word for one of those great big crashing waves?

The ending of “The Breaks” reminded me of suicide victims who leave no explanation for their action.  In fact, Robinson recited a poem that referenced Wendell Kees, an abstract expressionist painter, jazz musician, photographer, and author of what he labeled his “Robinson poems,” who apparently jumped to his death off San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge without leaving a note.  Some think Kees was referring to Edwin Arlington Robinson (my favorite poet) while others see a connection between his work and Robinson Jeffers.  Obviously, Kirk Robinson identified with his work.

In “Woman, Asleep, With Her Head Resting on The Classic of Western Drama” Robinson describes a student splayed out on this bench, on this campus,
on this day when maybe she’s heard all she wants to hear about Mankind’s great themes.”  With a textbook serving as her pillow Robinson imagines she’s dreaming herself

into a lovely field of beans, riding a green tractor, her tomcat

sending her smoke signals from a windbreak of trees…

What does any of this have to do with Desire Under the Elms,
here, on a Tuesday, when there is nothing better to do?

A Nebraska native who lived several years in New York City, Robinson read both his own compositions and poems by two others he admired, Cal Freeman and Catherine Barnett. The students, many apparently aspiring poets, peppered him with questions.  After he made reference to 18th Street Brewery in Miller, I asked if he wrote about the Region.  He said that, having lived in Northwest Indiana just six years, he’s only beginning to get a handle on the area.  “I still get lost driving around,” he said.  The setting of one poem, however, was a playground in Wicker Park.

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