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Gary's National Black Political Convention, 40 years on

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In a few months Republicans and Democrats will hold their respective conventions to officially nominate candidates for president. While it’s a forgone conclusion that President Barack Obama will be the Democrats’ pick, no fewer than four Republicans candidates are still fighting it out at the polls.

While the cycle of party conventions seems to go back, unbroken, for many decades, there are a few instances when major political meetings interrupted the more predictable schedule of events.

One of these occurred 40 years ago this week in Gary, Ind. For three days beginning March 10, 1972, the Steel City hosted the National Black Political Convention. Some say this independent meeting forged a path forward for African-American politics, one that remains open to this day.

The event took place in the gym at Gary’s West Side High School, which is now called West Side Leadership Academy. These days the gym hosts high school basketball tournaments — sometimes packed with thousands of fans, parents and players. But Lonnie Randolph, a veteran state senator from neighboring East Chicago, remembers how the gym looked during the black political convention of 1972, and how excited he was to be part of the historic event.

“You hear and read about the national conventions and all that, but to have one in your own backyard, especially for the first-time gathering of African-Americans,” Randolph said.

The overriding mission: unity

The National Black Political Convention attracted approximately 8,000 people from across the United States. Their mission was to establish a unified political agenda that would address poverty, unemployment and blacks’ lack of clout within the Republican and Democratic parties.

Some made impassioned pleas for African-American political and economic freedom following tumultuous events of the ‘60s, such as the violence in Selma, Alabama, the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and the deaths of major figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. at the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind. (Gene Pesek/Chicago Sun-Times)

Some of the biggest names in the civil rights movement came to lend their voices in Gary, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.

“We are grown. We ain’t taking it no more. No more yes boss. No more bowing or scrapping. We are 25 million strong. Cut us in or cut it out. It is a new ball game,” Jackson said in a passionate speech at the convention, as depicted on the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize.

Jackson recently sat down with WBEZ for a one-on-one interview to discuss the convention and its legacy.

“For the first time ever, really, in a political sense, this was a really major, somewhat unorthodox, political convention. People there from all over the country and the Caribbean. And even without Internet, Facebook and high technology, people came,” Jackson said. “Getting the right to vote in ’65 was the beginning of a process, but the convention in Gary solidified the sense of focus. This convention was overwhelming. It could not be turned around.”

Convention lands in a town with ‘only one hotel’

Jackson says the convention was planned at a time when the nation was experiencing heated and sometimes violent political protests, so hosting a black political convention would have been a major feat for any city. But the convention landed in the growing, but modest-sized Gary, a city on the shores of Lake Michigan with a population of 175,000 — half of which was black. It didn’t hurt that its latest mayor was African-American.

“It was important to have it in a city where the mayor was the host. We couldn’t have had the same convention if the climate had been hostile,” Jackson said. “Mayor (Richard) Hatcher was the driving force. He chaired that convention into reality.”

Richard Gordon Hatcher had been voted into office in 1968, making him the first black mayor of a large American city.

“At that time, most large cities in the country, the last thing they wanted was to have thousands of black people coming to that city for any period of time,” Hatcher told WBEZ recently. “People said there would be riots, buildings would be burned, crime would escalate. All of those things.”

Hatcher says, at the time, the nation’s political climate was changing and blacks needed to decide how to best address pressing issues as well as achieve true equality. Hatcher, along with many other attendees, thought other means had failed.

“You couldn’t get it done through the courts and it was pretty clear that peaceful, non-violent demonstrations were not going to happen anymore. But what was evolving was politics, the political sphere,” said Hatcher, now a political science professor at Indiana University Northwest in Gary. “The decision was made that we needed to call all of the black people that we could together from all over the country to come to a meeting, come to a convention.”

Hatcher recalls having several meetings in New York, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Chicago with top black leaders to decide where to host the convention.

“So the discussion moved from, ‘Shall we do it,’ to ‘Where shall we do it?’ I think we tried a couple of cities and basically, the officials in those cities made it clear that such a meeting was not welcomed in their cities,” Hatcher said. “I suggested Gary would take the meeting. Gary could handle the meeting. There had been no discussion about the fact that Gary had only one hotel.”

To offset a lack of hotel rooms, Hatcher says some convention visitors stayed in Chicago, but a good number were hosted in the homes of Gary residents.

Time to welcome visitors

“I don’t think I had ever been to Indiana before,” said Amiri Baraka. In a recent interview with WBEZ, the noted poet from Newark, New Jersey, recalled his impressions from the 1972 convention.

At that time, Baraka considered himself to be a black nationalist, and that movement’s imagery and vibe were on display.

“You know, it was a very striking kind of thing,” he said. “When we got there, Hatcher had put these red, black and green flags on all the sign posts down there. It was very exciting. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been to in my life. There were black delegates there from all 50 states, just like it was a convention for the Democratic or Republican party.”

The convention’s main objective was to establish a black political agenda for the nation, but coming to a consensus wasn’t easy. There were heated, back-and-forth discussions and some delegates even threatened to walk out of the convention when they couldn’t come to terms.

Baraka says attendees pressed on because adopting that agenda was paramount.

“That was the reason that we gave for having a convention in the first place — that we were going to create this black agenda so that every politician would have to take this into consideration if they wanted to run,” Baraka said. “The things the African-American people wanted … nationally.”

Despite the appeals to unity, divisions remained. One of the deepest was between black groups that chose to participate in the convention and those that did not. One prominent no-show was The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which avoided the meeting because whites were not allowed to participate.

That exclusion carried over to white news reporters, whose absence proved to be an opportunity for young black journalists, at a time when few minorities were in the news business.

One journalist who attended was Renee Ferguson, the current press secretary for U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.). Ferguson had a long career as one of Chicago’s top television journalists, but in 1972 she was a 22-year-old reporter with the Indianapolis News newspaper.

“I don’t think the News had hired a woman or an African-American person,” Ferguson told WBEZ recently. “They sent me because, in order to cover this, I think the organizers had said they would only have black reporters. So, I got credentialed and got to cover this beautiful piece of history.

“When I got there it was very disorganized, much bigger than anybody had planned for and impossible actually for anybody to see what was happening. The speeches were long and there were a lot of egos and there weren’t many women.”

Ferguson says the Gary delegates grappled with a basic question.

“Are black people going to work on the inside with the system, or are they going to have their own and work on the outside? And that was the big argument no matter what else they talked about,” Ferguson said. “That was the underlying intrigue and the most interesting thing for me to document as a young reporter.”

Three days with a decades-long legacy

The convention is credited with galvanizing African-Americans and encouraging them to run for office. Over the next 10 years, the number of elected black politicians grew from 2,200 to more than 5,000.

Even those who didn’t attend the event, such as former Illinois U.S. Sen. Roland Burris, said the aftereffects are undeniable.

“Out of that was a lot of groundwork laid for blacks to run for various offices throughout the country,” Burris said. “The energizing coming out of that ’72 national convention certainly would energize the voters to see the power and interest in electing these various individuals to these new offices.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. marches in Selma, Ala., on March 5, 2012. (AP/Dave Martin)

Smaller black political conventions were organized in later years but none approached the size or scope of the one in Gary. Despite the fact that the nation now has its first black president, many observers contacted by WBEZ agree there’s reason to hold another major black political convention.

“It’s time for another one,” said Jackson. “While we have the joy of having the White House occupied by President Barack Obama, blacks remain in the hull of the ship, and the water’s rising and (there is a) growing sense of desperation.”

West Side’s gymnasium has no plaque or other commemoration of the 1972 convention, though surviving attendees hope to keep its memory alive. To that end, U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), will host a symposium on the National Black Political Convention on Capitol Hill the weekend of March 23. Organizers say they hope to draw connections between the overlooked convention and this year’s presidential election.

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