Obituary – David N. Dinkins

New York’s first African-American Mayor and a benefactor for tennis died on 23 November at the age of 93.

The USTA as a charity, which is what we are. It’s important that we demonstrate that we are making a contribution to the broader community. I maintain that we don’t own this planet, we hold it in trust for the children. David N Dinkins, former Mayor of New York City

Serving as Major in the early 1990s, Dinkins signed a last-minute 99-year lease with the USTA National Tennis Center, negotiating a fee for New York City based on the event’s gross income.

This deal with the US Open has since brought more economic benefit to the City of New York each year than the New York Yankees, New York Mets, New York Knicks and New York Rangers combined.

Dinkins also created the city’s other revenue-producing events, including Fashion Week, Restaurant Week and Broadway on Broadway.

The USTA lease, which in its final form New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called ‘the only good athletic sports stadium deal, not just in New York but in the country’, saw the US Open move from the West Side Tennis Club to its current location in Corona Park, Flushing Meadows.

In the five decades since the first US Open, there have been players, innovators and newsmakers whose contributions helped make it one of America’s essential sporting events, and Dinkins, who was a real tennis fan, was one of them.

He played the game regularly, well into his 80s, on court four times a week, and was a found most days at the US Open watching all the action with a keen eye.

As a young man, he travelled each summer to a tournament at a black country club in New Jersey, where he hung out with the players and his interest in the game was piqued by seeing Arthur Ashe play.

It was an interested that never flagged..

Dinkins had his biggest effect on tennis as a well-positioned booster, with fans stopping to thank him for helping to reroute planes that once roared out of LaGuardia Airport and over Flushing Meadows.

After serving as Major he joined the USTA Board and was proud of what he was able to accomplish there.

“My greatest interest and concern was that people playing tennis look like this country,” Dinkins said. “It has been my experience that having a seat at the table alters things.”

In 2014, the USTA elected its first African-American president, Katrina Adams, and re-elected her in 2016.

“I’m not surprised she is where she is,” Dinkins said at the time. “She can do everything.”

For Dinkins, tennis wasn’t merely a game, it was an avenue for fulfilment.

“Through tennis,” he said, “hundreds of thousands of youngsters become better people.

David N. Dinkins photographed in 2013 with his wife Joyce Burrows Dinkins, who died in October

© Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

It wasn’t all plain sailing for Dinkins, though, and his rise to City Hall and subsequent fall after criticism of his handling of the racial violence in Crown Heights in 1991 is well documented.

Dinkins, who defeated three-term incumbent Ed Koch in the 1989 Democratic primary, beat Republican Rudy Giuliani that year to become the city’s 106th mayor.

He would serve one-term until 1993, when he narrowly lost his re-election bid in a re-match against his Republican foe.

His turbulent time in office was marked by rampant crime and racial unrest.

Despite the turmoil, he led the city with a grace and dignity that was respected even by his political foes and left him an admired figure when his tenure was long over.

“David was a historic mayor. He showed that a black candidate can win biracial support in a city-wide race,” said former Governor David Paterson, who became the first African-American governor.

“There’s a special appreciation for him. He tried very hard to be the mayor of all the people.”

Dinkins led the nation’s largest city two decades before Barack Obama was elected the first African-American president.

“David Dinkins was a forerunner to Barack Obama. He was elected saying the same things,” said civil right activist Al Sharpton.

“He helped to change the psychology of American politics, making it more inclusive and more progressive.”

“He maintained dignity, class and gentlemanly-ness so rare in today’s world,” said Ken Sunshine, who served as Dinkins’ first chief of staff . “He was almost too nice to be mayor of New York.”

Born on July 10, 1927 in Trenton, New Jersey, the young Dinkins and his family moved to Harlem but he returned to Trenton to attend high school.

He enrolled at Howard University, though his studies were disrupted by World World II during which he served in the United States Marine Corps before returning to Howard, where he graduated with honours and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.

Dinkins married a Howard classmate, Joyce Burrow, in 1953, and the couple had two children David Jr. and Donna Dinkins Hoggard, and he earned his law degree from Brooklyn Law School in 1956.

As Dinkins got more involved in Democratic Party politics in New York City, he would form an alliance with three other up and coming Harlemites — Charles Rangel, Basil Paterson and Percy Sutton.

They would later become known as the Gang of Four, the most powerful force in the city’s black political establishment, particularly in Harlem.

His first big step in politics was winning a seat to the State Assembly, in 1965, where he served one-term.

The future mayor began making a name for himself and was credited with helping creating a program that provided state grants to college students from low income families.

Dinkins was appointed president of the city’s Board of Education in 1972.

Then-Mayor Abe Beame later tapped Dinkins to serve as deputy mayor, but Dinkins declined the job after embarrassing stories surfaced about unpaid taxes, a debt he later paid off, and subsequently was appointed to the mostly ceremonial post of city clerk.

When his pal Sutton stepped down as Manhattan borough president in 1977, Dinkins ran for the post, but lost, and lost again, to Andrew Stein in 1981, but the third time was the charm and he was elected borough president in 1985.

Some longtime associates were surprised when Dinkins sought the mayoralty, describing him as a reluctant warrior, but by 1986 Major Koch Koch had become an unpopular and polarising figure amid a municipal corruption scandal.

During the Democratic primary, Dinkins portrayed himself as a stabilising force and antidote to the provocative Koch, who he beat by nearly 100,000 votes, and he went on to beat Giuliani by 50 percent to 47 percent.

Crime was a major issue, with the city reeling with more than 2,000 murders a year, a crack epidemic and 1 million New Yorkers on welfare following a recession .

Dinkins personally lobbied in Albany and persuaded the state Legislature to approve an income tax surcharge to finance the ‘Safe Streets, Safe City, Cops and Kids’ program, with the money used to hire more police to patrol neighbourhoods.

For all the history making of the mayoralty, Dinkins governed a fragile divided city beset with a high crime rate and still recovering from a recession and perhaps the biggest fumble of his administration was the belated response to racial rioting in Crown Heights in 1991.

The disturbances erupted after a station wagon driven by a Hasidic driver struck and killed black 7-year-old Gavin Cato.

In retaliation, angry black youths assaulted Jewish residents and Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old Hasidic scholar, was stabbed to death.

A damning state report concluded Dinkins “;ailed to act in a timely and decisive manner’ and also rapped his Police Commissioner Lee Brown and for ‘inadequate’ supervision.

“I wish I had challenged police accounts earlier,” Dinkins said at the time. “The larger lesson is, one has to challenge, cross-examine and question,” he said after the report’s release.

The report was released just months before his re-election bid, against Giuliani, a mob-busting former US Attorney and many believe the mishandling of the Crown Heights contributed to Dinkins’ defeat.

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

After leaving office, Dinkins joined Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs as a professor in public Policy in 1994.

He also kept engaging in activism, as he was arrested for criminal trespassing as part of a public protest in 1999 against the shooting death of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo in a hail of 41 bullets fired by four white police officers.

His steadfast support for tennis continued throughout his life, and he worked with the USTA Foundation, helping to shape the National Junior & Learning network dedicated to helping youth strive for academic and athletic excellence on the tennis court, in the classroom and in life.

The initiative has been going for well over 50 years and Dinkins has been a longtime supporter, hosting the NJTL Essay Contest reception at his home.

A few years ago he said: “The USTA as a charity, which is what we are. It’s important that we demonstrate that we are making a contribution to the broader community.

“I maintain that we don’t own this planet, we hold it in trust for the children.”

Dinkin’s death of natural causes came only weeks after the passing of his wife, Joyce, who died a month earlier, in October, at the age of 89.



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