David Dinkins, who broke barriers as New York City’s first African American mayor, but was doomed to a single term by a soaring murder rate, stubborn unemployment and his mishandling of a riot in Brooklyn, has died. He was 93.
Dinkins died Monday, the New York City Police Department confirmed. The department said officers were called to the former mayor’s home in the evening. Initial indications were that he died of natural causes.
Dinkins’ death came just weeks after the death of his wife, Joyce, who died in October at the age of 89.
Dinkins, a calm and courtly figure, was a dramatic shift 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.
Results from his accomplishments, however, didn’t come fast enough to earn Dinkins a second term.
After beating Giuliani by only 47,000 votes out of 1.75 million cast in 1989, Dinkins lost a rematch by roughly the same margin in 1993.
Political historians often trace the defeat to Dinkins’ handling of the Crown Heights riot in Brooklyn in 1991.
The violence began after a black seven-year-old boy was accidentally killed by a car in the motorcade of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l. During the three days of anti-Jewish rioting by young black men that followed, Rabbi Yankel Rosenbaum, Hy”d, was fatally stabbed. Nearly 190 people were hurt.
A state report issued in 1993, an election year, cleared Dinkins of the persistently repeated charge that he intentionally held back police in the first days of the violence, but criticized him for not stepping up as a leader.
In a 2013 memoir, 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.”
Born in Trenton, New Jersey, on July 10, 1927, 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 hitch 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!” Dinkins recounted years later.
While attending Howard University, the historically black university in Washington, D.C., Dinkins said he gained admission to segregated theaters by wearing a turban and faking a foreign accent.
He got 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.
Dinkins’ election as mayor in 1989 came after two racially charged cases that took place under Koch.
Dinkins defeated Koch, 50 percent to 42 percent, in the Democratic primary. But in a city where party registration was 5-to-1 Democratic, Dinkins barely scraped by the Republican Giuliani in the general election, capturing only 30 percent of the white vote.
His administration had one early high note: Newly freed Nelson Mandela made New York City his first stop in the U.S. in 1990. Dinkins had been a longtime, outspoken critic of apartheid in South Africa.
In that same year, though, Dinkins was criticized for his handling of a black-led boycott of Korean-operated grocery stores in Brooklyn. Critics contended Dinkins waited too long to intervene. He ultimately ended up crossing the boycott line to shop at the stores — but only after Koch did.
During Dinkins’ tenure, the city’s finances were in rough 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. There were 8,340 New Yorkers 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.
After leaving office, 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 hospitalized 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.
Dinkins is survived by his son, David Jr., daughter, Donna and two grandchildren.