Richard Hatcher, First Black Mayor of Gary, Dies At 86
Updated at 10:14 a.m.
Richard G. Hatcher, the first black mayor of Gary, Ind., and one of the first African Americans to lead a major U.S. city, died Friday. He was 86.
Hatcher’s family confirmed the death in a statement Saturday.
“In the last days of his life, he was surrounded by his family and loved ones,” the statement reads. “While deeply saddened by his passing, his family is very proud of the life he lived, including his many contributions to the cause of racial and economic justice and the more than 20 years of service.”
Richard Gordon Hatcher was first elected to the city council in Gary, Ind,. in 1963. Four years later, he became mayor of the city and served for 20 years.
At Hatcher’s mayoral inauguration, his longtime friend and ally, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, recalled that several big-name stars showed up to the event.
“[But] Hatcher insisted on having this youth group perform,” Jackson told WBEZ Sunday. “Nobody wanted to hear the youth group. They wanted to see the stars."
"The youth group turned out to the Jackson Five," he recalled.
Hatcher was considered a firebrand in the national civil rights movement and in political circles in segregated Northwest Indiana.
In 1972, Hatcher organized the first-of-its-kind National Black Political Convention. It was held at Gary’s West Side High School. The event attracted an estimated 8,000 black elected officials and activists from around the country, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr.
Hatcher made an impassioned speech at the convention, including one that was later featured in PBS’ "Eyes on the Prize" series about the Civil Rights movement.
“I believe that the ‘70s will be the decade of an independent black political thrust," Hatcher said then. "Its destiny will depend on us here at Gary this afternoon. How shall we respond? Will we walk in unity or disperse in a thousand different directions? Will we stand for principle or settle for a mess of potage? Will we maintain our integrity or will we succumb to the man' s temptation? Will we act like free black men or like timid, shivering chattel? Will we do what must be done?
“These are the questions confronting this convention and we, you and I, are the only ones that can answer them and history will be the judge.”
Hatcher’s oratorical prowess was known across the country, and that left an impression on his daughter, Ragen, who is now a Democratic Indiana State Representative. She says whenever she feels unsure about the next move to make, she thinks of her father.
“Somehow he always knew what the right thing to do was,” Ragen Hatcher told WBEZ Saturday. “And even if it were hard or difficult or brought chaos, he would always stress that we did the right thing.”
One of three children, Ragen Hatcher says her father didn’t see color when it came to helping people.
“He taught all three of us so much of what it meant to be a good citizen, a good person, how to fight for your community, while community is important, why racial and economic justice is important and how to make a difference.”
Richard Hatcher was later a law professor for many years at Valparaiso University and taught other courses at Indiana University Northwest in Gary.
Karen Freeman-Wilson, the current Mayor of Gary who was Indiana' s first African American female elected to serve as a mayor in Indiana, says she’s glad Hatcher was surrounded by his family in his final hours.
“While deeply saddened by his passing, his family is very proud of the life he lived, including his many contributions to the cause of racial and economic justice and the more than 20 years of service he devoted to the city of Gary,” Freeman-Wilson said.
In October, Richard Hatcher attended a ceremony to unveil a bronze statute in his honor that now sits outside Gary’s City Hall. The retired attorney and law professor said he loved it.
“I feel wonderful, wonderful,” Hatcher said. “I’m in awe. I thank everyone who had anything to do with it being here.”
Michael Puente covers Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Alex Keefe is the senior editor for government & politics.