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Reflecting On The First Wave Of Black Mayors In The U.S.


Thirty-four - that's how old Richard Hatcher was when he was elected mayor of Gary, Ind., in 1967.


RICHARD HATCHER: This has been one of the most significant campaigns in the history of our city. It marks the end of years of corrupt machine control of the city's government. This is indeed a great day for the city of Gary.


CORNISH: He was the city's first black mayor, and his win signified changes in U.S. politics following the civil rights movement. Mayor Richard Hatcher is being heralded as the last of the first. He died Friday at 86.

Earlier today, we spoke with Ravi Perry, whose books include "Black Mayors, White Majorities: The Balancing Act Of Racial Politics." I asked him, what was it about the Hatcher campaign that was striking to people?

RAVI PERRY: Richard Hatcher was able to convince many of the whites there in '67 that while, yes, he was someone who was going to ensure that all people were, in fact, equitably represented, he emphasized that that included the black folks from the side of town in which he was raised.

It's a unique story in that we saw black politicians who were actually running as black people in majority-white areas. And so that's what makes Hatcher's death really so sad because it really is also, to some extent, the death of an era in which the first elected black mayors of major cities in this country realized that they could run and seek white crossover votes successfully.

CORNISH: Richard Hatcher grew up one of 13 kids. His father molded railroad car wheels. His mother was a factory worker. He understood manufacturing life, and yet he was unable to stem the end of the manufacturing era in Gary - right? - as steel begins to leave that city and other kinds of manufacturing leaves other cities. What did it mean for this wave of politicians, mayors, black candidates who had just come to power and then saw the economic bases of their cities suffer?

PERRY: Yes. Well, what - well, we call them political science. It's this term of the hollow prize that after the cities have already been depleted of its resources, after its loss, the wealth that it once had in terms of a tax base that was perhaps white and middle-class, then you see African Americans be able to get the power of the actual elected seats. But they win these seats without the resources that their predecessors had. And yet we're still having to fight against overly high expectations that some of their own black community expected of them, although I should say, rightly so, because the first time anyone becomes the first of your own to get elected, people who represent your communities are going to feel as though they finally, for the first time, have a chance to perhaps get their interest represented because everyone who does not look like them beforehand was unsuccessful in doing that, in their view.

CORNISH: He had once organized the National Black Political Convention in Gary. That was in '72. He served as chairman of Jesse Jackson's Democratic presidential campaign in '84. All these years later, after we had the election of Barack Obama in 2008, what is Hatcher's legacy?

PERRY: We should think of Richard Hatcher in the vein of those vanguard black elected leaders in this country that saw to it that they should use the power of their position to advocate for the least among us, for the most vulnerable and for the marginalized. And that ushered in a whole new wave of black elected officials, from Tom Bradley in LA to Norm Rice in Seattle to Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson in Atlanta, or whether it be the president of the United States. You can run as a black person in a majority-white jurisdiction and not run away from your blackness and still win.

CORNISH: Ravi Perry, chair of the political science department at Howard University.

Thank you for coming in.

PERRY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.