Gary Councilwoman Ragen Hatcher grew up with a parade of civil rights leaders and political figures drifting through her living room.
They all came to her house to meet with her father, then Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher, whose election paved the way for generations of African-Americans, including Ragen Hatcher herself, to get involved.
“I kind of grew up in that idea you can improve the lives of people in your community by being politically active,” Ragen Hatcher said.
In 1967, Hatcher became the first African-American mayor in Indiana, and with Carl Stokes, of Cleveland, the first to lead a major city. The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., a longtime civil rights leader, said that moment put Hatcher in a national spotlight and led to scores of African-Americans seeking political office.
“Mayor Hatcher deserves a statue,” Jackson said. “He’s somebody we can look up to forever and forever.”
Jackson, a longtime friend of the former mayor, said politicians and figures from across the country flocked to Gary after Hatcher’s election to see the “urban experiment.”
“Hatcher was a guiding light,” Jackson said.
Hatcher built a generation of leaders, Jackson said, from council people to mayors to legislators.
“He took his national calling very seriously,” Jackson said, and Hatcher’s leadership laid the foundation for future leaders.
Ragen Hatcher said her father’s election not only showed people they could become elected officials but gave them the confidence to run.
The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary embodied that notion, Ragen Hatcher said, and everyone left inspired.
Prior to that time, African-Americans lacked the confidence that they could run and be successful.
Hatcher had vision, said Dena Holland-Neal, the daughter of Hatcher’s first deputy mayor, and wanted to bring people together and he helped put together the 1972 National Black Political Convention.
Hatcher chaired the 1972 convention, Jackson said, and a broad group of people came to Gary because of him. The convention attracted those who were politically active and other who had never voted, Jackson said.
“There were people in other communities that got into politics because of the political convention,” said James Lane, professor emeritus at Indiana University Northwest.
During Jackson’s two presidential bids, in 1984 and 1988, Hatcher led his campaign, the former Democratic candidate said, and had the vision to make it happen.
Jackson said Hatcher set a threshold for putting together a multi-cultural set of delegates support his presidential run.
“He was a representative figure of the political black power movement, peacefully playing through the system,” said Lane.
A misconception about Hatcher is that his was militant about black power, Lane said, but the truth was that he was willing to work with anyone.
“He tried to work through the system,” Lane said.
Hatcher reached out to blacks, whites, labor leaders and anyone he thought could bring ideas, Jackson said.
“He was very progressive, very inclusive,” Jackson said.
Hatcher really believed in citizen participation, Lane said.
“Hatcher molded opinion and shaped urban development,” Jackson said.
Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, who has served in the Indiana House of Representatives since 1982, said Hatcher sought to get people involved in government.
In the early 1960s, Brown was taeaching in the Gary schools and planned to return to Philadelphia when Hatcher approached him to join his administration.
“I said, ‘Wow, I don’t know anything about municipal government,'” Brown said.
Brown said Hatcher talked to him, and asked him to run for public office. Brown said he didn’t like wearing shirts and ties and didn’t think the statehouse was right for him.
“I did it for the challenge and I won,” Brown said.
Hatcher was able to tell young people even they could become a mayor, said Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, and showed them it was possible.
“For me, he opened that door at the age of 7,” Freeman-Wilson said.
Ragen Hatcher said she’s traveled with her father and people outside the area know and remember his name.
“People are just so excited just to meet him,” Ragen Hatcher said. “They understand his significance.”
Hatcher opened the door for Obama using the campaign slogan, “Yes I can,” Brown said, and paved the way for thousands of African-American politicians throughout the country. Now, thousands of African-Americans hold public office, Brown said.
“Mainly because of Mayor Hatcher opening that door,” Brown said.
Tickets available for anniversary gala
The 50th anniversary of Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher’s 1967 election will be marked at “A Day to Remember” beginning at 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, at West Side High School Theatre, 900 Gerry St., Gary.
Special guests include the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial, singer Deniece Williams and others, according to a release. Val Warner of Windy City Live will be the host.
Tickets are $25 and are available at the Urban League of Northwest Indiana, 3101 Broadway and at Gary City Hall, 401 Broadway. Tickets may also be purchased online at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/a-day-to-remember-tickets-37077022372 or call 219-887-9621.