First African-American mayor of New York David Dinkins dies aged 93

His death, apparently from natural causes, came just weeks after the death in October of his wife, Joyce, who was 89.

David Dinkins
David Dinkins

David Dinkins, who broke barriers as New York City’s first African-American mayor, has died at the age of 93.

New York City Police Department said officers had been called to his home on Monday evening and initial indications were that he died of natural causes.

Mr Dinkins’ death came just weeks after the death in October of his wife, Joyce, who was 89.

Obit David Dinkins
David Dinkins died just weeks after his wife, Joyce (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Mr Dinkins, a calm and courtly figure with a penchant for tennis and formal wear, was dramatically different from both his predecessor, Ed Koch, and his successor, Rudolph Giuliani – two combative and often abrasive politicians in a city with a world-class reputation for impatience and rudeness.

In his inaugural address, he spoke lovingly of New York as a “gorgeous mosaic of race and religious faith, of national origin and sexual orientation, of individuals whose families arrived yesterday and generations ago, coming through Ellis Island or Kennedy Airport or on buses bound for the Port Authority.”

But the city he inherited had an ugly side, too.

Aids, guns and crack cocaine killed thousands of people each year. Unemployment soared. Homelessness was rampant. The city faced a 1.5 billion US dollar budget deficit.

Mr Dinkins’ low-key, considered approach quickly came to be perceived as a flaw. Critics said he was too soft and too slow.

“Dave, Do Something!” screamed one New York Post headline in 1990, his first year in office.

Mr Dinkins did a lot at City Hall. He raised taxes to hire thousands of police officers, he spent billions of dollars revitalising neglected housing, and his administration got the Walt Disney Corp to invest in the clean-up of then-seedy Times Square.

In recent years, he received more credit for those accomplishments, credit that Mayor Bill de Blasio said he should have always had. Mr De Blasio, who worked in Mr Dinkins’ administration, named Manhattan’s Municipal Building after the former mayor in October 2015.

Obit David Dinkins
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, left, unveils a plaque renaming the Manhattan Municipal Building as the David N Dinkins Building, during a ceremony in 2015 (Mary Altaffer/AP)

“The example Mayor David Dinkins set for all of us shines brighter than the most powerful lighthouse imaginable,” said New York Attorney General Letitia James, who herself shattered barriers as the state’s first black woman elected to statewide office.

“I was honoured to have him hold the Bible at my inaugurations because I, and others, stand on his shoulders,” she said.

Results from his accomplishments, however, did not come fast enough to earn Mr Dinkins a second term.

After beating Mr Giuliani by only 47,000 votes out of 1.75 million cast in 1989, he lost a rematch by roughly the same margin in 1993.

Political historians often trace the defeat to Mr Dinkins’ handling of the Crown Heights riot in Brooklyn in 1991.

The violence began after a seven-year-old black boy was accidentally killed by a car in the motorcade of an Orthodox Jewish religious leader. During the three days of anti-Jewish rioting by young black men that followed, a rabbinical student was fatally stabbed. Nearly 190 people were hurt.

A state report issued in 1993, an election year, cleared Mr Dinkins of the persistently repeated charge that he intentionally held back police in the first days of the violence, but criticised him for not stepping up as a leader.

In a 2013 memoir, Mr Dinkins accused the police department of letting the disturbance get out of hand, and also took a share of the blame, on the grounds that “the buck stopped with me”. But he bitterly blamed his election defeat on prejudice: “I think it was just racism, pure and simple.”

Obit David Dinkins
New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, left, shakes hands with outgoing mayor David Dinkins during inaugural ceremonies at City Hall in January 1994 (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Born in Trenton, New Jersey, on July 10 1927, Mr Dinkins moved with his mother to Harlem when his parents divorced, but returned to his hometown to attend high school. There, he learned an early lesson in discrimination: blacks were not allowed to use the school swimming pool.

During a stint in the Marine Corps as a young man, a Southern bus driver barred him from boarding a segregated bus because the section for blacks was filled.

“And I was in my country’s uniform!” Mr Dinkins recounted years later.

While attending Howard University, the historically black university in Washington DC, Mr Dinkins said he gained admission to segregated cinemas by wearing a turban and faking a foreign accent.

Back in New York with a degree in mathematics, he married his college sweetheart, Joyce Burrows, in 1953. His father-in-law, a power in local Democratic politics, channelled Mr Dinkins into a Harlem political club.

He paid his dues as a Democratic functionary while earning a law degree from Brooklyn Law School, and then went into private practice.

He was elected to the state Assembly in 1965, became the first black president of the city’s Board of Elections in 1972 and went on to serve as Manhattan borough president.

Obit David Dinkins
Democratic candidate David Dinkins and his wife, Joyce, give the thumbs-up to supporters after he won the mayoral race in New York in 1989 (Ron Frehm/AP)

Mr Dinkins’ election as mayor in 1989 came after two racially charged cases that took place under Ed Koch: the rape of a white jogger in Central Park and the bias murder of a black teenager in Bensonhurst.

Mr Dinkins defeated Mr Koch, 50% to 42%, in the Democratic primary. But in a city where party registration was 5-to-1 Democratic, he barely scraped past Republican Mr Giuliani in the general election, capturing only 30% of the white vote.

His administration had one early high note: Newly freed Nelson Mandela made New York City his first stop in the US in 1990. Mr Dinkins had been a longtime, outspoken critic of apartheid in South Africa.

In that same year, though, Mr Dinkins was criticised for his handling of a black-led boycott of Korean-operated grocery stores in Brooklyn. Critics contended that he waited too long to intervene. He ultimately ended up crossing the boycott line to shop at the stores — but only after Mr Koch did.

Obit David Dinkins
David Dinkins, centre, marches at the front of the 29th annual African-American Day Parade in Harlem, New York, flanked by Al Sharpton, left, and Ruth Messinger (Michael Schmelling/AP)

During Mr Dinkins’ tenure, the city’s finances were in poor shape because of a recession that cost New York 357,000 private-sector jobs in his first three years in office.

Meanwhile, the city’s murder toll soared to an all-time high, with a record 2,245 homicides during his first year as mayor. A total of 8,340 New Yorkers were killed during the Dinkins administration – the bloodiest four-year stretch since the New York Police Department began keeping statistics in 1963.

In the last years of his administration, record-high homicides began a decline that continued for decades. In the first year of the Giuliani administration, murders fell from 1,946 to 1,561.

One of Mr Dinkins’ last acts in 1993 was to sign an agreement with the United States Tennis Association that gave the organisation a 99-year lease on city land in Queens in return for building a tennis complex. That deal guaranteed that the US Open would remain in New York City for decades.

After leaving office, Mr Dinkins was a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

He had a pacemaker inserted in August 2008, and underwent an emergency appendectomy in October 2007. He also was admitted to hospital in March 1992 for a bacterial infection that stemmed from an abscess on the wall of his large intestine. He was treated with antibiotics and recovered in a week.

He is survived by his son, David Jr, daughter, Donna, and two grandchildren.

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