Gary’s Civil Rights Struggle Then and Now
By: Hilary Powell
July 11, 2014 — This week, Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, honored Hoosier civil rights leaders on a national stage in a speech on the U.S. Senate floor.
Since the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 this month fifty years ago…local officials say the fight for greater civil rights in the region took root in part in the steel city. Its legacy is still being examined today.
The year 1964: A time of transition for a place known as the 20th- century city.
“Even though my parents told me I could do anything I wanted to do, my country told me no you can’t,” says Renee Ferguson, a veteran Chicago journalist.
“In the early 60s, the African-American population of Gary, Ind. was approaching 50 percent. It picketed businesses that discriminated in hiring,” says James Lane, a historian and co-director of the Calumet Regional Archives.
Lane says African-Americans in Gary, Ind. were isolated in homes in the central district, and discriminatory hiring practices meant white residents got the good jobs.
Jackson – “Segregation was not so painful as it was isolating,” says Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. “It’s denying one the options to see what the options were.”
The Steel City’s answer to a growing swell for equal treatment for all residents was to elect Richard Gordon Hatcher.
“Let us dare to make a new beginning,” Hatcher said on his Inauguration day as the country’s first black mayor.
“He had the full cooperation of Lyndon Johnson, and national Democrats, because here was a black person willing to play within the system,” Lane says. “People in Washington, D.C. wanted to see the Gary experiment succeed.”
By 1972 the city was the hub of a black power push when Hatcher hosted the National Black Political Convention at West Side High School.
Thousands of black leaders, including Coretta Scott King and Jackson, filled the gymnasium.
“That seemed to be at that time beyond anybody’s imagination,” Jackson says. “Much of the idea came from Mayor Hatcher. It was so exciting. He was a great man.”
“The Civil Rights Movement had really started a human rights movement because this nation had just kind of accepted everybody’s inequality,” Ferguson says.
But is the civil rights act’s legacy one of a more equal America 50 years later? People still seem divided. A March 2014 CBS poll found 8 in ten Americans say the act has had a positive effect on America. But conversely, a 2013 Pew poll found 50 percent of Americans say more needs to be done to achieve racial equality.
Decades after the historic gathering at West Side, Jackson say’s the county with Indiana’s second largest Black population has a legacy of being left out.
“It’s ironic that we’re sitting here today in Merrillville, Ind. because I’ve been out here maybe five times in 35 years,” he says. “When Mayor Hatcher won the city of gary, the whites moved in mass and set up a whole new town.”
“White area public officials organized to create the town of Merrillville,” Lane says.
“It was not just the steel mill collapse that hurt Gary and that did not allow Gary to remain the great city it was,” Jackson says.
Perhaps no better party to evaluate Gary’s state of racial and economic equality today than the generation walking his trodden path.
“The first time I actually kind of got a guess of it was when I looked at the Betty and Coretta movie,” says David King, a sophomore at Indiana University Northwest. “I looked at the gym and I said, ‘that gym looks mighty familiar.’ I said, ‘that looks like West Side’s gym.”
King, a 19-year-old Gary native is a graduate of West Side. He learned about the convention on his own.
“I think we see it now as a thing that we learn through history books,” he says.
Hatcher: “the problem today is that we have very few truly militant people who will stand up and speak up and speak the truth — the Jesse Jackson’s,” former Gary mayor Richard Hatcher says.
But King, who is mentored by Hatcher, says equality today is affected through a movement.
“I think it has to go beyond a convention. It has to go beyond talking, speeches,” he says.
For King — a student of history — the two generations, decades apart, have the same affinity for championing positive change.
“Our generation is a action-driven generation,” he says. “We’re going to actually be out doing what we talked about. Its, our generation operates on action. Action is us.”
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