NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — On Jan. 1, 1990, David Dinkins, the son of a domestic and a barber, entered the Big Apple’s history books as the first — and to date only — African-American to win election as mayor of the city of New York.
Dinkins died on Monday at the age of 93 of natural causes, the NYPD confirmed.
“I intend to be the mayor of all the people of New York. This administration will never lead by dividing, by setting some of us against the rest of us or by favoring one group over others,” Dinkins said upon taking office.
Watch Marcia Kramer’s report —
As CBS2’s Marcia Kramer reported, Dinkins was a kind and dignified man who referred to the city’s diverse population as the “gorgeous mosaic” and he had a soft spot in his heart for children, all children, so much so that after he took the oath of office he said he would dedicate his administration to bettering the life of the children of New York.
“The measure of whether I fulfill my mandate will be how we treat those who start out life during my tenure,” Dinkins said.
Dinkins defeated Ed Koch to become the 106th mayor of New York by promising to be tough on crime and more sensitive on racial issues.
“I stand before you today as the elected leader of the greatest city of a great nation, to which my ancestors were brought, chained and whipped in the hold of a slave ship,” Dinkins said.
Yet his administration was marked by a number of polarizing events, including the Black boycott of a Korean-owned grocery in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and the 1991 Crown Heights riots.
Crime proved to be a difficult problem for Dinkins. A wave of murders and gun violence prompted the New York Post to demand “Dave, do something.”
Dinkins did do something. He got the state Legislature to pass the “Safe Streets, Safe Cities” tax to hire thousands of additional cops, and that helped him reduce crime dramatically, ending a 30-year upward spiral.
Ironically, Dinkins was hurt by the perception that crime was out of control during his administration.
After shots were fired less than a block away from a press conference he had on gun control, Kramer talked to Dinkins about his own safety concerns.
“Do you ever worry about your own safety?” she asked.
“It’s just not much one can do about that. To live in constant fear is not to live,” Dinkins said.
PHOTO GALLERY: Former NYC Mayor David Dinkins Through The Years
Dinkins was known for his dapper dress. In the office he kept his suit pants in a press to keep the crease and he walked around in sweat pants — and for his personal toughness — in part the result of a stint in the Marines.
He once related a story about how his family stopped him from a “life of crime” at the age of 8 or 9 after he stole reflectors off license plates in Harlem.
“My mother and grandmother, who were domestics, normally would just talk to me if I were misbehaving. [They] felt that on this instance it was important to teach me a lesson, to strip me and put me in a bathtub and spank me with straps and, as I put it, I haven’t stolen a reflector since.”
Dinkins entered public life in the 1960s, when he was elected to the New York State Assembly. He was a Democratic district leader for two decades. He became the first Black to head of city Board of Elections in 1972, and was about to become the city’s first Black deputy mayor, appointed by then-Mayor Abraham Beame, until it was discovered he failed to pay his taxes for four years.
“It was an error. It never should have happened,” Dinkins said.
It was only a temporary setback. In 1975, he became city clerk and then he ran — and lost — for Manhattan borough president.
He remained a prominent figure, appearing with other Black leaders such as Jesse Jackson.
But Jackson’s association with the Rev. Louis Farrakhan caused discomfort. In 1985, when the Black Muslim was accused of making anti-Semitic remarks before a scheduled appearance at Madison Square Garden, Dinkins was one of the few Black leaders to publicly rebuke the controversial minister.
“A call for power and pride counted in terms of racial and religious bigotry can never offer true hope,” Dinkins said.
He was finally elected Manhattan borough president in 1985 and four years later won election to the city’s top job.
One of the people who worked for Dinkins was a young man who would go on to become mayor, himself.
“David Dinkins believed that we could be better. He believed that we could overcome or divisions. He showed us what it was like to be a gentleman, to be a kind person, no matter what was thrown at him, and a lot was thrown at him, and he always tried to answer the hate with love,” current Mayor Bill de Blasio said.
“I think that this city will always be indebted to him and this nation and certainly this community,” the Rev. Al Sharpton added. “He represented the best of us and never forgot the rest of us.”
Sharpton remembered the time Dinkins, then out of office, joined him to protest police actions in the killing of Amadou Diallo. He was arrested because he was on his knees and wouldn’t move.
“David Dinkins took a knee against police brutality before Colin Kaepernick did. David Dinkins never stopped standing for what was right,” Sharpton said.
Dinkins’ election was a moment of pride and a first for many in New York City.
“For many people of the white community, David Dinkins became the first Black they ever voted for. Dave Dinkins was the road that ultimately led to the election of Barack Obama.”
“I am confident that his becoming mayor takes us one step farther, and we got a long way to go, but there’s hope through guys like David N. Dinkins,” said former congressman Charlie Rangel.
Rangel was one of Dinkins’ lifelong friends.
“You cannot have a friend and know him as long as I’ve known David Dinkins,” Rangel told CBS2’s Dick Brennan. “He would greet everybody like they were long-lost cousins, and if they had children, I would wonder when we are ever going to go to have supper.”
He says one of Dinkins’ most joyous moments as mayor was convincing Nelson Mandela to make New York City his first stop on his U.S. visit.
“Some of his argument was … we don’t know where Africa is. We’ve never been to Africa. Bring Africa to us,” Rangel said.
Dinkins left many marks on the city. He signed the lease with the United States Tennis Association to create the Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, and also created Fashion Week, Restaurant Week and Broadway on Broadway.
The passing of David Dinkins comes more than a month after the loss of his wife, Joyce.
Joyce Dinkins was born in Harlem and earned a sociology degree from Howard University in Washington, where she met her future husband.
She was a champion of literacy and established “Reading is Recreation” at Gracie Mansion.
She and the former mayor are survived by their two children.
Dinkins’ family says a memorial service will be held sometime after the COVID pandemic ends.
MORE FROM CBS NEW YORK