Richard G. Hatcher Biography
A civil rights activist, lawyer, and from 1968 one of the first African American mayors of a major American city, Richard G. Hatcher became one of the most influential black Americans of the 1970s and 1980s. Born into poverty and blind in one eye, Hatcher began his political career while studying law at Valparaiso University, where he joined sit-ins and worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to end segregation in Indiana's restaurants. As a Gary, Indiana, councilman, and later mayor, Hatcher worked tirelessly to improve housing, education, and health care for the city's poor, though he did so at a time of economic decline for Gary and other industrial cities. He also served as chair of Reverend Jesse Jackson's 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns.
Born in Michigan City, Indiana, on July 10, 1933, Richard Gordon Hatcher was the youngest of 13 children. His father Carlton worked for Pullman Standard, manufacturing railroad cars and his mother Catherine was a factory worker. Though blind in one eye Hatcher made a name for himself in high school as an athlete, excelling on the track and on the football field; in 1951 he won an athletic scholarship to attend Indiana University, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1956. He went on to law school at Valparaiso University in Indiana, completed his law degree in 1959, and was admitted to the Indiana bar. He married Ruthellyn Marie Rowles on August 8, 1976, and they have three children: Ragen Heather, Rachelle Catherine, and Renee Camille.
Hatcher's career as an activist began in his sophomore year at college, when he participated in an NAACP-organized picket of a segregated campus restaurant called Nick's; after starting law school in 1956 he helped organize a sit-in at Brownie's Griddle in Michigan City. After passing his bar examinations Hatcher moved to Gary, Indiana, where he set up in private practice and became deputy county prosecutor, but he was increasingly interested in politics. He became president of the group Muigwithania (the name is the Swahili word for "unity" or "togetherness") in 1962; the group, which Hatcher helped found, was a civic and social club, with an activist focus. By 1963 he was a city councilor and soon after became the council president, pushing civil rights and housing legislation to help the city's poor. White opposition groups were largely responsible for his legislative failures, but Hatcher managed to undermine the entrenched white Democratic interests and earn popularity among black voters.
Hatcher went up against incumbent A. Martin Katz in the 1967 mayoral contest, defeating him in the primary when another candidate split the white vote. He won the general election with 95 percent of the black vote to become one of only two black mayors of major American cities; the other was Carl Stokes, who won in Cleveland, Ohio. At his swearing-in as mayor in January 1968, Hatcher said: "Gary is a rising sun. Together, we shall beat a way; together, we shall turn darkness into light, despair into hope and promise into progress. For God's sake, for Gary's sake—let's get ourselves together."
Hatcher worked hard to improve life in Gary. Hatcher used his previous service as an advisor to Lyndon Johnson's administration on urban regeneration and black interests to help Gary became a major recipient of federal funding to help with housing, poverty, and crime during his mayoral tenure. But although he worked hard to prevent its decline, national politics and global economics were against him. The 1970s and 1980s saw a dramatic downturn in America's industrial cities which combined with reduced federal funding, the migration of middle-class whites away from urban centers, and rising crime to damage the economies of cities like Gary.
By the 1980s many voters felt that Hatcher had failed to live up to many of the promises he made at the start of his tenure as mayor. He also had well-publicized disputes with other council members, labor unions, and with the Gary Post Tribune. Having held on to his popularity throughout the 1970s, by 1987 Hatcher was taking the blame for Gary's problems and he lost that year's mayoral election; he ran again in 1991 and was defeated in the primary. Although he ended his time as mayor in less than happy circumstances, Hatcher's commitment to equality and fairness was never in dispute. It is reflected not only in what he tried to achieve as mayor, but also in the campaigns in which he was involved. He was an organizer of the 1972 Black Political Convention and chairman of Rev. Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988.
After failing to get re-elected for a sixth term Hatcher returned to working as a lawyer. He established R. Gordon Hatcher & Associates, a consultancy firm, in 1988, and joined Valparaiso University as a law professor in 1989. He has since become an adjunct professor in African American studies at Indiana University Northwest and continues to talk and write about civil rights and urban regeneration.
Catlin, Robert A., Racial Politics and Urban Planning, Gary, Indiana 1980–1989, University of Kentucky Press, 1993.
Clark, Kenneth Bancroft (ed.), The Black man in American politics, three views: Kenneth B. Clark, Julian Bond, Richard G. Hatcher, Metropolitan Applied Research Center for the Institute for Black Elected Officials (Washington, D.C.), 1969.
Poinsett, Alex, Black Power Gary Style: The Making of Mayor Gordon Hatcher, Johnson Publishing Company, 1970.
Ebony, February 2005.
Jet, April 8, 2002, p. 34.
Catlin, Robert A., "Urban Revitalization, Black City and White Mayor Gary Indiana and Scott King 1991–2002," American Planning Association 2002, www.asu.edu/caed/proceedings02/CATLIN/catlin.htm (September 20, 2005).
"Let's Get Ourselves Together," Indiana University Northwest, Calumet Regional Archives, www.iun.edu/∼cra/newsletter/fall1997.shtml (September 20, 2005).
"Richard Hatcher," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (September 20, 2005).
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