50 Years After Civil Rights Act: Gary’s Own Journey
By: Hilary Powell
July 4, 2014 — It’s a gathering where the minority — for one historic moment — became a majority.
“8000 black people all together, plus the media in the gym in West Side High School,” says veteran journalist Renee Ferguson.
“They were talking about empowering each other, but the very essence of it for me was already empowering. Just to see all of these people with ambition, with plans, with dreams, with a challenge to our nation. It was the first time really that I thought we might be able to get somewhere.”
Ferguson was just out of college in 1972. The National Black Political Convention she covered at West Side High School in Gary, Ind. was a rarity: An African-American delegate from every state, every political party reflected and no White citizens allowed, she says.
“It was a huge thing for me and I was right out of college and they had made a demand, the people who put the convention together, that only black reporters could cover it,” Ferguson says. “And so, that was a chance for me. It gave me a real opportunity.”
“Nothing had happened quite like that,” says James Lane, a history professor and co-director of the Calumet Regional Archives at Indiana University Northwest. “Because what you had in the late 1960s was a growing militancy on the part of black people.”
Lane says Gary was fertile territory for the radical gathering because of the work that happened a decade before.
“Richard Hatcher ran successfully for city council in 1963 so, in 1964, the same year that the Civil Rights Act was passed, he took his seat as a city councilman. They recommended an omnibus civil rights bill that prohibited discrimination in schools, in hiring, in places like restaurants and that narrowly passed in the mid 60s.”
Lane says when Gary’s African-American population approached 50 percent in the early 1960s, they saw mayor Hatcher as a natural leader.
Rare footage, courtesy of Huntley Film Archives, shows Hatcher’s affect on a crowd after being inaugurated mayor in 1968.
“He was the first black mayor of a significantly sized city,” Lane says.
Storied civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s.
“Mayor Hatcher was maybe the only national mayor we ever had,” Jackson says. “He saw his role as mobilizing national black political consciousness. Gary became the national headquarters of black political empowerment. That’s why the convention was here.”
“Gary was so important because they had a black mayor,” Ferguson says. “They had elected Hatcher.”
Jackson says the 1972 convention in Gary was a turning point for equality following the bill.
A major cornerstone of the convention was “The Black Agenda,” a manifesto of urgent issues black leaders wanted to address.
“That basically said that this is where black people want to be for the next five years or ten years,” former Gary mayor Richard Hatcher says.
Hatcher helped craft the list as part of the steering committee.
The ambitious agenda addressed topics like increasing the minimum wage, eliminating capital punishment, and establishing national health care.
Hatcher says several of the concerns continue to resurface for Black America.
“We may in many ways be in worse shape today than we were in 72 when it comes to opportunity, when it comes to equal rights,” he ways. “People do not talk or think in terms of pulling together again around many of the issues. Many of the issues are not new issues. The first thing that I think we should do as we look to the future is we need to go back and read that, that agenda. Because, it is very relevant to all the things that are happening to us today.”
Content Credit: Huntley Film Archives, Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest, Professor James Lane, Wabash College, Rainbow PUSH Coalition, National Archives and Records Administration, FedFlix, Archive.Org, U.S. Information Agency