THH Episode 43: “Tribe Come Home:” The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana

Transcript for “Tribe Come Home:” The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana

Written by Nicole Poletika and produced by Jill Weiss Simins.

Justin Clark: Leaders mounted the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s to counter systemic oppression, which kept many African Americans in poverty, subpar housing complexes, and inferior schools, while keeping them out of voting booths, political office, and good paying jobs. Public demonstrations like the Selma-to-Montgomery March, the Watts Uprising, and Poor People’s Campaign drew widespread attention to the plight of African Americans. And the Black Power Movement, which produced African art and Black studies courses, strengthened “black consciousness” and bolstered racial pride.

But, Black activism and uplift was often met with violence and North Carolina minister Benjamin Chavis recalled that:

Olon Dotson: “I had gotten tired of going to funerals. . . . so much of the Movement had been tragic. You know. And I have to emphasize King’s assassination was a tragic blow to the Movement.”

Clark: For the most part, by the end of the decade, those in power continued to resist institutional change that would, in Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher’s words, grant Black Americans “’their fair share of the pie.’” So, Black leaders embraced a different strategy: channeling collective outrage into political reform, transforming the Black Power Movement into the Black Political Power Movement. The site of this “political experiment” for Black liberation? Gary, Indiana.

I’m Justin Clark, filling in for host Lindsey Beckley, and this is Talking Hoosier History.

Forging a new Black political strategy would prove challenging, as Martin Luther King’s death created a leadership void, in which differences grew between the two major ideological factions: integrationists and Nationalists. Integrationists, like Congressional Black Caucus and NAACP members, sought to work within the two-party system, pressuring elected officials to meet the needs of Black Americans. They also sought to elect more Black leaders at the local and federal level. Let’s take a quick detour to discuss the complexities of the Nationalist faction.

Nationalists generally sought to establish a self-governing nation, in which Black institutions oversaw Black communities. However, historian Leonard Moore noted that Nationalists were not monolithic. Some sought to replace U.S. capitalism with socialism, by violent means if necessary. Others, Dr. Moore wrote, believed that “the key to black liberation” depended on “the reclaiming of African values and culture.” Territorial nationalists, like members of the Nation of Islam and Republic of New Afrika, called for a separate “geographical home” for Black Americans. While the Nation of Islam imbued many African Americans with a sense of identity and empowerment, it operated as an extremist group that espoused Black superiority and directed hateful ideals at LGBTQ+ and Jewish Americans. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the Nation of Islam has “maintained a consistent record of anti-Semitism and racism since its founding in the 1930s” and grown more extreme under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan. It is important to address the organization’s problematic aspects, but also to clarify that not all Nationalists belonged to the Nation of Islam or espoused its rhetoric.

Nationalist leader, poet, and founder of the Congress of African Peoples, Amiri Baraka began prioritizing political activism by the early 1970s. He increasingly recognized that the resources and connections of political office holders were necessary to make enduring change. Baraka sought to establish some form of collaboration, or what he called “unity without conformity,” through a National Black Political Convention in 1972.

Gary, Indiana, a city literally built along racial lines, would be the unlikely site of this historic gathering. U.S. Steel Corporation gave birth to the city in 1906, converting acres of swampland and sand dunes into what would become an industrial mecca. Gary’s expanding steel market shaped the city’s built environment and encouraged population growth. Between 1906 and 1930, increasing numbers of European immigrants, Black Southerners, Mexicans, and white migrants flocked to the region looking for work in the steel industry.

Businessmen and steel mill managers settled North of the Wabash Railroad tracks, in Gary Land Company’s subdivisions. The cost to live in this area excluded many newcomers—primarily African Americans and immigrants—from its paved streets and lush rows of trees. Instead, minorities lived on the Southside—an area neglected by the Gary Land Company—often in tarpaper shacks, tents, and barracks that lacked ventilation. The city’s social construction ultimately resulted in its implosion. Beginning in the 1950s, waves of white residents fled from the city’s growing Black population to the suburbs, taking their businesses with them. This retreat robbed the city of tax dollars and residents of employment opportunities.

Gary’s 1967 mayoral election represented a longing for change in the majority-Black city. Thirty-four-year-old African American lawyer and Democratic candidate, Richard Hatcher, would respond to this call. The Michigan City native earned his law degree in 1959, which he quickly put to work as Lake County prosecutor. He also served as a private practice attorney, representing plaintiffs in school segregation lawsuits. According to historian Leonard Moore, Hatcher used his expertise to challenge police brutality and founded Muigwithania, a group of young black professionals “dedicated to black liberation.” It was this leadership prowess and social activism that made him an ideal mayoral candidate.

Since 1938, Gary’s mayors had belonged to the Democratic Party. And yet, the party supported Hatcher’s Republican opponent in the 1967 election. Although lacking funding and partisan support, Hatcher’s message of equality and racial uplift resonated with Gary’s disenfranchised voters. The leader made history on November 7, when he was elected one of the first African American mayors of a large city, along with Carl Stokes, who was elected Mayor of Cleveland just hours after Hatcher.

Mayor Hatcher quickly got to work meeting the demands of his African American constituents, establishing new low-income housing developments, diversifying the city council, and granting minority businesses government contracts. Given this progressive record, Gary soon made the list of National Black Political Convention hosts. Ultimately, planners selected the Steel City because it symbolized Black political empowerment and because other cities had reservations about accommodating so many African Americans.

On March 10, 1972, approximately 3,000 state delegates and 7,000 attendees from across the country poured into Gary for the weekend. Many of them marveled at the city’s helpful police force and congenial atmosphere. North Carolina delegate Benjamin Chavis recalled:

Dotson: “when we first saw the sign saying ‘Welcome to Gary’ and we got [to] downtown Gary, I mean, we thought we were in a different country. I mean . . . to see a city in the United States, given the backdrop now of all this Nixon repression going on, all this sense of disillusionment in some quarters of the nation, to drive into Gary, Indiana, and see streamers, red, black and green.”

Clark: The convention’s significance stemmed partly from the fact that those asked to help draw up the blueprint for equality came from all walks of life. Its architects would not solely be appointed leaders or office holders, but Black Panthers, feminists, college students, pastors, labor leaders, Nation of Islam members, and Marxists.

Because Gary had only one hotel, many attendees stayed in Chicago, IU Northwest dorms, or with Gary residents, some of whom they forged lifelong friendships with. That Friday afternoon, a collective sense of pride spread through West Side High School as delegates headed towards the gym, a packet in hand advertising local black-owned businesses. Music thrummed, vendors sold Afro combs, books about leaders like Marcus Garvey, and soul food like chitterlings, while others recited poetry on the sidewalk about the long struggle for their human rights.  Nationalist Queen Mother Moore, in her colorful headwrap, handed out pamphlets and made the case for reparations. Boxer-turned-activist Muhammad Ali served as sergeant-at-arms, joining police and civil defense personnel. The extra security proved necessary after a bomb threat was reportedly called into the Holiday Inn, the convention headquarters.

The convention kicked off with a press conference before state caucuses began developing resolutions to be debated over the course of the weekend. And were treated to a performance by “Godfather of Soul” James Brown that evening. The following day, after a late start, the convention resumed with an address by Mayor Hatcher. In his black rimmed glasses and striped suitcoat, he approached the podium, greeted by a standing ovation. An ideal host for his ability to mediate between Nationalists and integrationists, it was fitting that he delivered the opening address. Hatcher began his speech by invoking the “spirit of triumph and determinism” of W.E.B. DuBois. Warmly welcoming the attendees, which included entertainer Harry Belafonte and Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale, he stated the goal of the 1972 convention was the creation of a National Black Political Agenda that would serve as a “dynamic program for black liberation.”

While the “foment” and demonstrations of the 1960s served a purpose, it was time for African Americans to wield political power, to not only advise on legislation but to help create it. He told the rapt audience:

Dotson: “In our infinite patience, we have tried year after year, election after election to work with the two major political parties. We believed the pledges, believed the platforms, believed the promises, each time hoping they would come true. Hoping we would not again be sold out.”

Clark: But no longer. African Americans would pick political candidates to represent them, not the party. And the chosen party must address the “inhumanity” faced daily by every Black American. In addressing indignities, the party must work from the bottom up. National decisions, Hatcher argued:

Dotson: “must be discussed in every nook and cranny of this country, from the tar paper shacks in the Mississippi Delta, to the pine hovels of the Appalachian Hills, from the rank and fetid basement apartments of the 47th Street to the barios of Spanish Harlem.”

Clark: Black Americans must demand that legislators end employment discrimination and meager wages. They must demand a decent public school system and the replacement of inferior houses with those that do “not affront the eyes nor offend the nostrils.” Quality health care must be provided, regardless of one’s means to pay for it. Like in white suburbia, the heroin epidemic should not be allowed to ravage Black youth. Should the government fail to meet these demands, they would lose the support of Black voters, who could “conceivably turn to fearsome tactics” or form a third political party. Mayor Hatcher concluded the rousing speech by asking:

Dotson: “Will we walk in unity or disperse in a thousand different directions?”

“Will we act like free black men or timid shivering chattels?”

“Will we do what must be done?”

“History will be our judge.”

Clark: Lauded by Dr. Moore as a “work of art,” Hatcher’s speech set the tone for the convention. It blended the urgent tone of Nationalists and the pragmatism of the Congressional Black Caucus. But if his speech was a work of art, Jesse Jackson’s was the Louvre. The young preacher and P.U.S.H. founder, wearing an MLK medallion and wide-collared shirt, was met by applause as he took the stage. He began:

Dotson: “‘Brother Hatcher came up North and got a new house in Gary and said to all the scattered tribes around the nation come home. I know my home is too small but come home. We could’ve went to New York City or L.A. But we didn’t have a home there. Come home. Over in this smoke-filled city called Gary one of our Black brothers said ‘Tribe’ come home.’”

Clark: Invoking Nationalist rhetoric, he asked:

Dotson: “Brothers and Sisters, what time is it?”

Clark: To which the crowd cried:

Dotson: “Nationtime.”

“For 7.5 million registered Black voters and 6 million unregistered Black voters, what time is it?”

“Nationtime.”

“For Black democrats, Black republicans, Black panthers, Black Muslims, Black independents, Black businessmen, Black professionals, Black mothers on welfare, what time is it?”

“Nationtime.”

Clark: Jackson called for African Americans to unlearn white superiority, to create a third party in order to represent their own interests. This required ego, which he argued they lacked after enduring decades of abuse and oppression. He proclaimed:

Dotson: “when you sit here with your healthy Black body and developed Black mind and put your confidence, creativity, and belief in somebody else who is less intelligent than you, to represent you, your ego has been castrated.”

Clark: Holding the audience in the cusp of his hands, Jackson bellowed:

Dotson: “What time is it?”

“Nationtime!,” the audience chanted, now on their feet, fists in the air.

“When we respect each other, what time is it?”

“Nationtime!”

“When we get ourselves confident, what time is it?”

“Nationtime!”

“When we form our own political party, what time is it?”

“Nationtime!”

Clark: With his electrifying speech, he stepped into the leadership void left by MLK. In the words of attendee Byron Lewis, Jackson “was born in that convention.” Fellow preacher, Ben Chavis, recalled the poignant moment:

Dotson: “everybody raised their fists and stood up, literally, and repeated over and over again, ‘It’s Nation-time. It’s Nation-time.’ . . . Jesse Jackson became the keynoter in terms of lifting the emotional level of the crowd to an all-time high with the call for Nation-time. But it was just not a hollow call. It was just not a rhetorical call . . . I mean, you could hear it . . . reverberating Marcus Garvey. You could hear it reverberating all those prize struggles from the forties, and the thirties, and the fifties and the sixties. I mean, it came to be fulfilled in that moment, of crying that it’s Nation-time, not next year, not next century, but now. In 1972. In Gary, Indiana.”

Clark: To Chavis, “Nationtime” meant unity of purpose. This would be needed when the delegates, energized by the speeches, debated potential resolutions for the Black Agenda. Illinois delegates proposed prison terms and fines for employers guilty of discrimination, as well as employment priority for Black veterans. North Carolina proposed a prisoners’ bill of rights. Indiana was among those delegations that demanded an end to the Vietnam War. California and Oklahoma proposed harsher consequences for hard drug dealers. Discussion and, at times tense debate, centered around topics like forced busing, foreign policy, and whether or not to endorse African American Democratic presidential candidate, Shirley Chisholm.

Given the number of issues demanding attention, and the varied backgrounds and beliefs of delegates, some degree of discord was inevitable. But on Sunday, proceedings nearly fell apart. Baraka, clad in a black dashiki, presided over the stage, lined with leaders like Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz. He introduced a draft of the National Black Agenda, incorporating the suggested resolutions. To many delegates, the Agenda disproportionately represented Nationalist objectives, such as opposition to forced busing, which integrationists favored as a means to provide African American students with better education. Some delegates alleged that the Agenda failed to offer strategies for implementing resolutions, many of which they deemed unrealistic. Michigan delegation leader, Coleman Young, vocalized these concerns, as well as his discomfort about ratifying the Agenda before having a chance to digest it or give local activists an opportunity to provide feedback.

Coleman felt that the “Black Magna Carta,” as he dubbed it, was contradictory, with some resolutions supporting separatist ideals and others political integration. The Michigan delegation quickly composed a statement opposing ratification at the convention and read it to the crowd. They then filed out of the gymnasium, with Illinois’s delegation on the verge of following suit. Baraka pleaded with them not to leave, fearful that the disunity would entirely derail the convention. When his armed aids intercepted the Michigan delegates, Young recalled “’We were strapped down pretty well and showed them enough artillery to make it out of there.’” On the precipice of disbanding at best and violence at worst, the anxious crowd was ecstatic to realize that part of Michigan’s delegation had indeed remained. Shouts of “Nationtime!” soon resounded.

Delegates who had traveled across the country would not have to return home without hope or direction. By Sunday’s end, a draft of the National Black Political Agenda had been adopted, and tenuous compromise forged. Conveners founded the National Black Political Assembly, which would meet regularly to follow through on the plans made at the convention. Convention planners tweaked the Agenda in the following weeks, trying to address the concerns of delegates, and publicly released the 68-page document on May 19th, Malcolm X’s birthday. With the national elections approaching, the Agenda would be taken to the Democratic Party Convention and the candidate who prioritized its resolutions would gain the support of Black voters. These included:

  • proportional representation in Congress and local government
  • creating a National Black Development Agency to spur economic development
  • ending the exploitation of Third World Countries
  • ensuring a minimum income of $6,500 for a Black family of four

The document didn’t go so far as to endorse the creation of an independent party, but argued that “Social transformation or social destruction . . . are our only real choices.”

While many delegates felt uncomfortable with some of the resolutions, like its stance on busing, Pittsburgh Courier columnist Ethyl Payne wrote that the convention was successful in that “It was a political experiment in political participation. They now know what it means to be a part of the elective process.” The delegates and attendees returned home energized, committed to political engagement. Chavis said that, despite disputes:

Dotson: “I felt like I had been to a revival. . . . But not just a revival on the spiritual plane. Although that’s significant. But it was a revival on the political plane. It was a revival on the psychological plane. It was a revival on the cultural plane.”

Clark: The exhilarating event planted the seeds of political empowerment for young observers, some of whom served as delegates’ pages. Gary resident Wayne A. Young recalled that, when he was 12, he accidentally walked into the convention lobby and picked up literature, which:

Doston: “inspired dreams for my city and my country.” . . . “It was sweet to see so many budding and established activists, from Max Robinson to Rosa Parks to Ron Dellums all sitting in the Cougar Den.”

Clark: Although the National Black Political Assembly fractured over the following years, momentum generated at the convention increased voter participation. Black elected officials grew from 1,469 in 1970 to 4,890 by 1980. Dr. Moore poignantly concluded:

Dotson: “Despite the collapse of the National Black Political Convention, it galvanized entire communities around the possibilities of black political power and ‘people went back home, rolled up their sleeves and ran for public office in a way that Blacks had never thought about running for public office before.’ Thus, the presidential victories of Barack Hussein Obama can trace their lineage to Gary West Side High School, where black folk met in 1972 under the banner of the National Black Political Convention.”

Clark: While President Obama’s election was historic, institutional change has been slow to come and Black Americans continue to fight for their “’fair share of the pie.’” They are still disproportionately affected by issues like mass incarceration, unemployment, and barriers to health care. The death of Black Americans at the hands of police and the resurgence of white supremacist groups have generated a new collective outrage. Like the late 1960s and early 1970s, activists are grappling with how to transform this outrage into cohesive strategy.

Attention again turned to the ballot as a means for change with the 2020 U.S. election. Through increased grassroots mobilization and voter participation—goals outlined at the 1972 convention— Black turnout swung election results in favor of Democrat Joe Biden. In fact, AP News reported that Black voters transformed Georgia into a new battleground state, “potentially remaking presidential politics for years to come.” By leveraging social media and tirelessly knocking on doors, groups like Black Voters Matter imparted the relevance of voting to quality of life. Their work helped elect Kamala Harris, the country’s first woman and person of color to serve as Vice President. Black constituents again flexed their political muscle during the Georgia Senate runoffs on January 6, 2021, helping to elect Jon Ossof, the state’s first Jewish U.S. senator, and Reverend Raphael Warnock, the state’s first Black U.S. senator. These voters also helped flip the U.S. Senate from a Republican majority to a Democratic majority. Combined with a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and presidential administration, this could fundamentally alter federal legislation. It remains to be seen whether the high rate of Black political participation will be sustained and if elected officials respond to the demands of those who helped put them in office. But recent elections and the boldness of organizers like Stacey Abrams have made clear how profoundly Black Americans, once lynched for attempting to cast their ballot, can influence democracy.

Listeners, we would love to hear from those who attended or organized the convention, especially those from The Region. Please see the show notes for her contact information.  

Once again, I’m Justin Clark and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. If you would like to see the sources for this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes.

This episode of Talking Hoosier History was researched and written by IHB historian Nicole Poletika. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Our guest voice for this episode is Dr. Olon Dotson [Gary native and Ball State University professor]. We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode of Giving Voice [with former mayor of Gary, Karen Freeman-Wilson]. In the meantime, find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thank you for listening!

Show Notes for “Tribe Come Home:” The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana

If you organized or attended the convention, and would like to share your experience, please contact IHB historian Nicole Poletika at npoletika@library.in.gov or 317-232-2536.

Sources:

“Black Convention at Showdown Stages,” Vidette-Messenger of Porter County, March 11, 1972, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Black Political Movement Born in Gary,” Journal and Courier (Lafayette), March 13, 1972, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Oral History Interview, Benjamin Chavis, April 18, 1989, Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection, accessed Eyes on the Prize II Interviews.

Gwendolyn Cherry, House of Representatives, “Cherry Notes from Florida,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 25, 1972, 2, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Chisholm Candidacy Faces Black Debate,” Muncie Evening Press, March 11, 1972, 1, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

Jay Harris, “Black Political Agenda Hit on Busing, Israel,” News Journal (Wilmington, DE), May 19, 1972, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

Erik Johnson, “Remembering Mayor Richard G. Hatcher,” Chicago Crusader, Special Tribute Edition, December 20, 2019, accessed chicagocrusader.com.

Sam Levine, “’They Always Put Other Barriers in Place:’ How Georgia Activists Fought Off Voter Suppression,” The Guardian, January 13, 2021, accessed theguardian.com.

Leonard N. Moore, The Defeat of Black Power: Civil Rights and the National Black Political Convention of 1972 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018), 2, 64-65, 96-102, 105-108, 112, 130-131, 149, 152.

“The NAACP and the Black Political Convention,” The Crisis 79, no. 7 (August-September 1972): 229-230, accessed Google Books.

Documentary, NATIONTIME-GARY, directed by William Greaves, screened at AFI DOCS 2020.

James Parker, “Blacks Marching to Different Drums,” The Times (Munster), March 12, 1972, 1A, 12A, accessed Newspapers.com.

Ethel L. Payne, “After Gary, What?,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 25, 1972, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

Nicole Poletika, “City Church: Spirituality and Segregation in Gary,” Indiana History Blog, May 13, 2019, accessed blog.history.in.gov.

Nicole Poletika, “‘Tired of Going to Funerals:’ The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary,” Belt Magazine (January 2019), accessed beltmag.com.

“Race and Voting,” Constitutional Rights Foundation, accessed crf-usa.org.

Jesus Rodriguez, “BLM Organizers See the 1972 National Black Political Convention as a Model. What Can They Learn from It?,” Politico Magazine, August 28, 2020, accessed politico.com.

Kat Stafford, Aaron Morrison, Angeliki Kastanis, “’This is Proof’: Biden’s Win Reveals Power of Black Voters,” Associated Press, November 9, 2020, accessed apnews.com.

“’…We Must Pave the Way so that Others May Follow,’” Pittsburgh Courier, March 25, 1972, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

Ross Williams, “Record Turnout among Black Voters Could Help Georgia Reshape the Nation,” Georgia Public Broadcasting, January 11, 2021, accessed gpb.org.

Wayne A. Young, “A Gary Native Reflects on What ‘Nationtime’ Means Today,” Chicago Crusader, November 24, 2020, accessed chicagocrusader.com.