“I tell people I’m in charge of children, children I haven’t even met yet.”
–Mayor David Dinkins
My wonderful friend, devoted child advocate and groundbreaking New York City Mayor David Dinkins passed away last November. He made history as the first and still only Black mayor of New York City. He had a sharp mind, keen political shrewdness, and deep commitment to making New York City a better place for children. He was a very dear friend and came whenever he was called to bolster the work of the Children’s Defense Fund. I loved him!
Born in Trenton, N.J. in 1927, David Dinkins grew up in an era when it was hard to imagine a Black child becoming mayor of our nation’s largest city. After graduating from high school he broke barriers as a member of the Montford Point Marines, the first African Americans to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps. After the Marines he attended Howard University on the G.I. Bill, graduating with honors in 1950. At Howard he met his future wife, Joyce Burrows, whose father was one of the first Black Democratic district leaders in Manhattan and Black members of the New York State Assembly. His father-in-law became a mentor and helped him navigate many racially driven political obstacles.
When David Dinkins became mayor in 1990, he inherited a city rife with racial tensions and immobilized by the worst local recession since the Great Depression and facing a deficit of $1.8 billion while federal aid to cities was slashed. He carefully examined every city agency, seeking ways to balance the budget, and placed a priority on trying to protect programs helping the most vulnerable. A signature Dinkins program was “Safe Streets, Safe City” after he convinced the state to provide funding for more police officers, resulting in a 54% increase of police on the streets. He was a criminal justice pioneer who recognized that just increasing the police force was not enough to combat crime and combined that with civilian oversight of police, minority hiring, community policing, and safe spaces called Beacon Centers which provided children and adults recreational and educational outlets. These community centers operated in school buildings during afternoons, evenings, weekends, school holidays, and summer and became a model across our country.
David Dinkins called his beloved city a “gorgeous mosaic” of diverse people. With the help of incomparable Deputy Mayor and much beloved Children’s Defense Fund Board Member Bill Lynch, he reflected that mosaic in city leadership by including two women Deputy Mayors and women to lead his finance, housing, human resources, juvenile justice, and parks departments, a Black and LGBTQ commissioner of mental health, a Black police commissioner, and the first-ever Puerto Rican fire commissioner. Community activists across all backgrounds united to promote an inclusive vision for a tolerant and diverse city.
In his 1990 inaugural address he said “we are all foot soldiers on the march to freedom, here and everywhere.” A highlight of his administration was his hosting great South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, recently released from prison four months earlier, for a three-day visit in New York City. More than one million New Yorkers – young, old, of every ethnic and racial background and borough – crowded the streets and Yankee Stadium for a glimpse of this great man.
Groundbreaking Mayor David Dinkins opened up children’s horizons about who they could be and supported policies to help them reach their full potential. He took his responsibility to be in charge of children to heart and remained a champion for children and supporter of the Children’s Defense Fund after he left office and always made himself available to us. His servant leadership and commitment to children is a great example for other political leaders to follow. I am so grateful for his exemplary life and friendship.