Richard Gordon Hatcher was the first African American mayor of Gary, Indiana, and an attorney. From 1968 to 1988, he held that position for 20 years. Hatcher was born in Michigan City, Indiana on July 10, 1933. Hatcher and Carl Stokes, the mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, were the first African Americans elected to major cities in the United States.
Hatcher graduated from Indiana University with a bachelor’s degree in business and government. His BA in criminal law with honors was awarded in 1956, followed by a Juris Doctor from Valparaiso University School of Law in 1959. In 1963, he was the first and only first-term city councilman to be elected president of the Gary City Council.
Hatcher reduced illegal gambling to near zero during his tenure as mayor, rid the Indiana Police Department of corruption and cronyism, and took creative approaches to the city’s problems. He was, for example, one of the first major city mayors to use federal funds to construct both affordable and public housing. His administration also provided job training, rehabilitated dilapidated streets, and provided regular trash pickups in poorer neighborhoods that had been neglected for too long by previous administrations.
Furthermore, even a decade after his election, many of the city’s department heads, including police and fire chiefs, were Black.
Hatcher, an outspoken civil rights activist, frequently shared the stage with national figures such as Rev. Jesse Jackson. He played a key role in organizing the 1972 and 2016 National Black Political Conventions in Gary. The one in 1972 was the first in the country’s history. Hatcher and seven other mayors wrote to then-President Jimmy Carter in 1979 to oppose a Republican proposal to lift sanctions against Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. Hatcher served as Vice Chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1981 to 1985 because of his national profile. Mayor Hatcher was the chairman of Jesse Jackson’s campaign in the 1984 U.S. presidential election.
Unfortunately, Hatcher was unable to stop the already steadily declining steel industry on a national scale. During his presidency, steel mills either closed or reduced their workforce, resulting in rising poverty and crime. The city’s population has also declined as more people have moved to the suburbs or left the region entirely. Gary became the national symbol of post-industrial America as a result.
After leaving office in 1988, Hatcher established R Gordon Hatcher & Associates and began teaching political science at Roosevelt University and law at Valparaiso University in 1989. He ran for mayor again in 1991, but this time he lost. He married Ruthellyn in 1976, and the couple has three daughters: Ragen, a member of the Indiana House of Representatives, Rachelle, and Renee.
Richard G. Hatcher, 86, died on December 13, 2019, at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago. Eight days later, his funeral was held.