David Norman Dinkins, the genteel first and, to date, only Black mayor of New York City who dedicated much of his public life trying to improve race relations in the nation’s largest city, has died at age 93.
Dinkins died Monday evening at his residence on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in Manhattan, the New York City Police Department told CNN.
The department had received a call from Dinkins’ residence about an unconscious person having difficulty breathing, according to the New York City Police Department.
Current Mayor Bill de Blasio confirmed Dinkins’ death to The New York Times. On Tuesday morning, de Blasio remembered Dinkins on social media as a mentor and friend.
“Chirlane and I are mourning a truly great man. David Dinkins simply set this city on a better path,” he tweeted with a photo of the pair. “He was my mentor, he was my friend, and his steadfast commitment to fight for that “gorgeous mosaic” inspires me every single day. We’ll keep up his fight,” de Blasio tweeted.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday also shared a photo of himself with Dinkins on Twitter, writing “NY lost a remarkable civic leader.”
“The first and the only Black mayor of NYC, he cherished our “gorgeous mosaic” & served the city & state over a career spanning decades with the hope of unity and a deep kindness,” he wrote. “My friend, you will be missed.”
Speaking frequently of what he called New York’s “gorgeous mosaic” of racial, ethnic and religious diversity, Dinkins championed economic equality and education for people of color, and offered the city a calming alternative to the brash leadership of Ed Koch, whose tenure in office was often marked by strained race relations.
But high crime, a national recession and several episodes of racial conflict largely defined Dinkins’ mayoralty in the early 1990s. Although it was under his leadership that the New York Police Department underwent a major expansion that would be credited with playing a significant role in driving down crime, he was ousted from office in 1993 in a close race by his political nemesis, Rudy Giuliani, who successfully painted Dinkins as an ineffectual leader unable to tame the city’s high crime.
Giuliani tweeted Tuesday that Dinkins “gave a great deal of his life in service to our great City” and added, “That service is respected and honored by all.”
“I extend my deepest condolences to the family of Mayor David Dinkins, and to the many New Yorkers who loved and supported him,” the former mayor wrote.
Dinkins was a genuine trailblazer in New York City history. As a member of the “Gang of Four” – an informal group that included longtime US Rep. Charles Rangel, the civil rights attorney Percy Sutton and Basil Paterson, New York’s first Black secretary of state – he was part of a new wave of Black leadership that came to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s and greatly increased Harlem’s political influence in the city. When Dinkins denied Koch’s bid for a fourth term in the 1989 Democratic primary and narrowly edged out Giuliani in the general election, he became the city’s 106th mayor and its first one of color.
Acutely aware of the delicate political balance necessary to govern as a Black mayor in a largely White city, the soft-spoken, bow-tie-wearing Dinkins repeatedly pledged to heal racial divisions, which had worsened toward the end of Koch’s term, while emphasizing a commitment to serve all New Yorkers.
“I intend to be the mayor of all of 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,” he said in a speech at City Hall shortly after he took office.
While in office, Dinkins expanded affordable housing to combat homelessness, pushed for measures to tackle the HIV/AIDS crisis and took several steps to address the city’s high crime rate, which reached its nadir in 1990 when the city recorded more than 2,200 murders that year.
Most notably, Dinkins pushed for a major expansion of the NYPD, dubbed the “Safe Streets, Safe City” program, and by the time he left office, the city’s crime rate had already begun to drop, a trend that lasted for nearly three decades.
Also of note was the move by Dinkins, a huge tennis fan, to negotiate a 99-year lease with the United States Tennis Association that brought the US Open to the city to boost the economy, a move later hailed by one of his successors, Michael Bloomberg, as “the only good athletic sports stadium deal, not just in New York but in the country.” Dinkins also continued efforts that started under the Koch administration to clean up Times Square by attracting new businesses to the area, which by the early 1990s had come to symbolize a degraded city widely viewed as being rife with drug users, homeless people and porn theaters.
But several racial conflicts largely undercut Dinkins’ message that he was uniquely able to bridge divides in the city and get a grip on crime. Most infamous was the August 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn that was sparked after a car driven by a Hasidic Jew jumped a sidewalk and struck and killed a young Black boy. Hours later, a Jewish student was killed by a group of Black men. Ultimately, the riots lasted three days, with members of the neighborhood’s Black and Hasidic populations physically confronting each other, stores being looted and several vehicles set ablaze. Dinkins was criticized for responding too slowly, and when he visited the area during the unrest, he was booed and bottles were hurled at him.
Dinkins would refer to the episode as the roughest period of his mayoralty, and he claimed success in defusing other racially sensitive moments during his term, including a dispute between Black and Korean store owners in Brooklyn and maintaining peace in the city despite the nationwide riots that followed the acquittals of the police officers charged in the 1992 beating of Rodney King.
But his critics, most notably Giuliani, then best known as a former federal prosecutor, would cite the Crown Heights unrest as well as crime to bash Dinkins, with Giuliani going so far as to call the riot a “pogrom,” a term referring to organized anti-Jewish violence in Eastern Europe. A year later, thousands of off-duty New York City police officers protested Dinkins outside City Hall after he proposed creating an independent civilian agency to investigate police. Some used racist language to describe the mayor. Giuliani was present, though he rejected Dinkins’ accusations that he had encouraged them.
In 1993, Dinkins narrowly lost to Giuliani, who became the first Republican mayor of the city in 20 years. In his 2013 memoir, “A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic,” Dinkins said racism was a key factor in his reelection loss.
“When asked why I lost, I used to say, ‘Why do you think?’ I did not want to say it out loud, but it’s time. Now I say, ‘Racism, plain and simple,’ ” Dinkins wrote.
Dinkins also resented Giuliani taking credit for the decline in crime that he argued began on his watch.
“They clearly don’t want to acknowledge that the number of police officers made a difference,” he said to The New York Times in 1996. “Instead, they continue to behave as though civilization commenced on Jan. 1, 1994.”
Born on July 10, 1927, in Trenton, New Jersey, Dinkins joined the US Marine Corps as one of the Montford Point Marines, the first Black Americans to serve in the branch, after he graduated from high school, and would later be among the Montford Point Marines who received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2012 for their service. He went on to attend Howard University, where he graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s of science degree in mathematics in 1950. Dinkins received his law degree from Brooklyn Law School in 1956 and practiced law before entering politics.
He became a member of the New York State Assembly in 1966 and was president of the New York City Board of Elections from 1972 to 1973. Beginning his political career as a state assemblyman, Dinkins was elected Manhattan borough president in 1985 before setting his sights on the mayoralty four years later.
After leaving the mayor’s office in 1994, Dinkins became a professor of public policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He also served as a board member for several organizations, including the United States Tennis Association and the Children’s Health Fund, and was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., the first Black intercollegiate Greek-lettered fraternity in the US.
His wife, Joyce Dinkins, former first lady of New York City, passed away on October 11 at age 89. Dinkins is survived by two children and two grandchildren.
CNN’s Joe Sutton, Hollie Silverman and Kristina Sgueglia contributed to this report.