THH Episode 44: Giving Voice: Karen Freeman-Wilson

* Transcribed by Benjamin Baumann

Nicole Poletika: I’m Nicole Poletika filling in for host Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice.

On today’s installment of Giving Voice, I have the pleasure of speaking with Karen Freeman-Wilson, who served as Mayor of Gary, Indiana from 2012 to 2019. And is currently President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. A Harvard Law School Graduate, Freeman-Wilson has had a prolific career, which includes serving as Indiana Attorney General. She has sought to advance social justice, as a Chairperson of the Criminal and Social Justice Committee of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and as Director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission. If you haven’t already listened to our latest episode, which covered the 1972 National Black Political Convention, I suggest you do so now, as we reference it during our conversation.

In this episode we discuss how the 1972 Convention impacted Freeman-Wilson, as well as Gary’s legacy of black political empowerment, modern activism, and how black women can get a seat at the political table.

And now, Giving Voice.

Poletika: Well, I’m here today with Karen Freeman-Wilson former Mayor of Gary, Indiana and current President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. Um, were really excited to have you here Karen, thank you so much for joining us.

Karen Freeman-Wilson: I’m excited to join you.

Poletika: So I know you grew up in Gary and as a small child you recall uh Richard Hatcher’s exciting mayoral election in 1967, and you remember the 1972 National Black Political Convention. So I know the historical record is missing recollections from local residents of the convention, so I was hoping you could tell us what you remember from the convention and how it shaped your personally or professionally or both.

Freeman-Wilson: Absolutely, I was 12 at the time and it was exciting to know that a National Convention was coming to Gary, Indiana. It was the talk of the town, uh people had a sense of pride that not only it was a national convening, but it was a convening of black people and because Gary only had one hotel at the time, a number of the people stayed in the homes of Gary residents. And we were able to host someone in our home. So, what I recall was the fact that they were convening to talk about an agenda and it seems odd for a 12 year old to remember that, but because I was an only child I found myself in a lot of rooms where adults were. And so, you know of course you just pay attention to what they are talking about and they were talking about black political agenda. Westside was a newly built school at that time and so it was a source of pride as well and so the fact that they were going to Westside, I remember seeing the signs from each state. So, you saw that people from all over the country were in the Westside gymnasium. There were people that you saw on television, of course Shirley Chisholm was there and she was someone that everyone took pride in. We knew that she was someone running for um President…John Conyers at that time was the Congressman from Detroit and you would occasionally see him on television, and one of the figures that everyone knew, even though he was just over in Chicago was uh Reverend Jesse Jackson. So, with all of those folks coming to Gary, talking about a Black agenda and really engendering a sense of pride in Gary residents that this subject matter, which was very important that was very weighty, and was all being led by our mayor, Mayor Richard Gordon Hatcher. Who was of course a source of pride for us locally and nationally, uh it was a big deal.

Poletika: Yeah, um and I remember he said that like you mentioned there was only one hotel so people stayed with residents, um and he said that some of the locals actually made life long friendships with the people that came in from outta town. Did you have that experience with the people that you hosted?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, to be honest my mom and dad had most of the interaction with them. So, I can’t even…I remember they were from Detroit, but beyond that I don’t remember much about them. I do know that there was at least one or two times because we were regular travelers to Detroit, because of relatives that my mom communicated with them. So, yes um there were friendships that came out of that and even from folks who were younger and who were activists, they were able to come together around subsequent convenings not the magnitude of that, but certainly subsequent convenings. And an interesting thing happened when we had sort of this convening, I believed it was back in 17 the 45th anniversary I believe. And people who had been here came back and they talked about it so that was uh real source of pride and interest for Gary residents who had gotten older, but who still remembered.

Poletika: Right, and you would have been mayor at that time.

Freeman-Wilson: Yes, I was the mayor at that time.

Poletika: Wow, that’s full circle.

Freeman-Wilson: It was.

Poletika: When the convention was here, were you in close proximity to the delegates? Did you get to actually observe any of the caucuses, in there kind of brainstorming?

Freeman-Wilson: I did not. Again, I went to Westside during the convention once to kind of see the general session, but I never had an opportunity to share with the caucuses at that time.

Poletika: You got to kind of be around the thinking though and.

Freeman-Wilson: Yeah, it was uh…you know it was a lot of energy in the room. Of course, um there were a lot of people there and they were sharing their ideas. I heard the speeches. Uh I remember, hearing Jesse Jackson speech, he was young so as a 12-year-old, you’re always gravitating around those folks who were closer to your age and that was always something that was exciting to see and hear from him.

Poletika: I bet and I know um, some people have kind of said that he was made in the convention with that speech so.

Freeman-Wilson: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. You know of course he was a um, an associate of Dr. King and after Dr. King’s passing. He was known because of operation breadbasket in Chicago, but I think he took the national stage in a significant way during that convention.

Poletika: So you, are a trail blazer yourself, um having been elected Gary’s first female mayor in 2012. And I know that black women were largely excluded from organizing the uh ’72 convention and um we had just talked about Shirley Chisholm. Uh I know some African Americans just refused to endorse her, because she was a woman.

Freeman-Wilson: Yes, that is correct.

Poletika: And it can be argued that women have more political influence than ever before, but in your opinion what uh obstacles do black women still face and how can they get a seat at the table?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, you know that’s an interesting question about the political influence of black women, because you’re right to the extent that we constitute the um workers and campaigns, and we are certainly reliable in terms of a source of a voting block and to ensure that people go to the poles. Uh when it comes to thinking about who will run for office, who will be the representative, even though black women are more than capable uh we often are looked over or are pushed aside. In favor of black men. And um, I don’t think its either or, it has to be both and, but very often there is more sexism in politics than there is racism.

Poletika: Interesting, yeah and I think Stacey Abrams is a good example of that and she came so close to holding office but didn’t quite get there.

Freeman-Wilson: Absolutely.

Poletika: Do you have any advice for those wanting to get a seat at the table?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, I certainly uh would encourage folks to continue to be engaged and be involved and you should not concede the fact that you won’t get a seat at the table, you can take a seat at the table. You have to work a little harder, fight a little harder, and push and be aggressive, but don’t mistake being emphatic and uh being focused, with being uh aggressive or pushy, which is something they always want to hang on women. But, I think that people need our representation, they need our voice. And certainly, the folks that we are representing need to have us in that room. So, its important that we, ensure that we get a seat at the table.

Poletika: Dr. Peniel Joseph described the convention as quote: “The most important political, cultural, and intellectual gathering of the black power era.” And it seems to me that Gary’s legacy of this black political empowerment is often kind of dropped from the narrative, which is unfortunate. So how do you envision Gary’s future in terms of political or socio-economic parody for black residents?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, I think that it is important to remember Gary’s role in the black power movement. In the narrative of that day about self-determination, as a result of the Gary convention you got Maynard Jackson in Atlanta. You got Wellington Webb in Denver, Colorado. You got uh, so many black mayors who were the first black mayors in their communities. And that led to economic empowerment in those communities. I think the challenge for Gary was that there was so much pushback on the political power that was gained by Mayor Hatcher and that was in many parts because Indiana had such a history of segregation and racism that people immediately reacted to his election in Gary in a negative way. Before he had an opportunity to lead and to govern there were folks who were making plans to not only leave town, but incorporate a city that was indirect contradiction of the existing Indiana law and that was Merrillville on the Gary border. And so, incorporate a town, because there was a law at the time that said that no town could be incorporated within 3 miles of a second-class city. There was a buffer zone. And uh not withstanding that fact you had legislation that was passed in the general assembly ironically in uh 1972 that allowed Merrillville to incorporate and as a result you saw growth in Merrillville, because that accelerated white flight. And so, as a result of that occurrence, Gary’s economic downturn was accelerated and that became Gary’s legacy unfortunately. I think now, there’s an opportunity to develop and create a new narrative uh from Gary because of the partnership that we were able to develop with the existing governor in Indianapolis and that Mayor Prince is continuing. I think there is also an opportunity because we were able to lay groundwork under the Obama Administration that can now be continued under the Biden Administration.

Poletika: Hmm, interesting point. And I know uh Mayor Hatcher had a city council that was in opposition to him and kind of blocked him.

Freeman-Wilson: Early on he did. Uh by the 2nd or 3rd term he was able to get things done. A lot of the development infrastructure, when you look at the Genesis Convention center that was built then. When you look at the Adam Benjamin Transportation Center that was built under his tenure. The Hudson Campbell Center, the Sheraton hotel that was ultimately torn down because everything has a lifespan right, but all of those things were accomplished under his tenure. The um housing…the affordable housing that was created during his time here all of those things occur.

Poletika: So, I have one last question for you. Based on your experiences as mayor and director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, and your various other leadership roles. What’s your advice for black activists and political hopefuls about how to make systemic change? Is it through the ballot, is it through public demonstrations, a combination?

Freeman-Wilson: I think it’s all of the above. There can’t be any one methodology. And I think that one of the things that is important to understand and that demonstrations will get you in the door to a table, but once you get to the table you have to have a negotiation strategy that will create long term systemic change. And so often people understand and are engaged at the protest, but they forget the strategy that has to be employed to create the systemic change and it’s not just uh from a political standpoint, but it has to be from an economic standpoint.

Poletika: Yeah, I know that there’s the Black Lives Matter organization and there’s the Black Votes Matter organization, seems like there working together.

Freeman-Wilson: Yeah, because the two aren’t mutually exclusive and there has to be a Black Economics Matter, as well.

Poletika: How do you think that you would leverage economic change?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, I think you leverage economic change in working with city and state government. Later today, I’m gonna be on uh panel with the State of Illinois where there gonna be talking about goals for black businesses. That’s important and so when you uh look at cities, when you look at states who will do business with black folks that ultimately allows them to employ black people in many instances and to transfer wealth in the black community. Because what we are seeing is an increasing gap and uh and many refer to it as uh racial wealth gap. How do you amass wealth uh, you amass wealth through business and you amass wealth through home ownership and so there has to be a focus on both of those mechanisms, along with the education that typically leads to wealth accumulation in those areas. So that you can ultimately ensure that you’re reducing the racial wealth gap. And government has a role to play in home ownership, in doing business with black folks and encouraging others, because you can’t just gain wealth by doing business with uh state government or the federal government. You have to do it with the private sector, because even when government turn downs occur private sectors uh, businesses will continue to procure goods and services.

Poletika: Right, and that’s why representation I am sure is so important. People like you being at the table and fighting for those measures.

Freeman-Wilson: Absolutely, that’s been one of our major areas of focus at the Chicago Urban League.

Poletika: Well, I can’t wait to learn more about your uh work with the Urban League, um how can people learn more about you and your work?

Freeman-Wilson: By looking at our website chiul.org, by following me @karenaboutgary and certainly on Twitter.

Poletika: Alright, well thank you so much for speaking with us, it was a real pleasure to talk with you.

Freeman-Wilson: Thank you so much.

Poletika: If you are interested in learning more about the National Black Political Convention check out our post at blog.history.in.gov and check out Dr. Leonard Moore’s book The Defeat of Black Power: Civil Rights and the National Black Political Convention of 1972. Please follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and Twitter for daily doses of Indiana History, subscribe, rate, and review talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.