Inside Gracie Mansion with New York's First Black Mayor; Tough, Savvy Politician Takes on the Challenge of America's Biggest City

By Randolph, Laura B. | Ebony, September 1990 | Go to article overview
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Inside Gracie Mansion with New York's First Black Mayor; Tough, Savvy Politician Takes on the Challenge of America's Biggest City


Randolph, Laura B., Ebony


Inside Gracie Mansion With New York's First Black Mayor

Tough, savvy politician takes on the challenge of America's biggest city

IN 1945 the nation's capital, like most cities in America, was the kind of place where Whites would look a Black person in the eyes and say with a straight face, "No coloreds."

David Dinkins knows this well. That was the year a bus driver pulled up to the curb, peered out at Dinkins, then a young Marine trying to get back to camp in North Carolina and, fingering his .45, told him just that. "When I got to the door of the bus the driver said, `Two more White seats,' Dinkins recalls. "I was in uniform."

Even the routine activity of seeing a movie was an ordeal for the man who grew up to be the first Black mayor of New York City. "In the movies in those days in Trenton, N.J., if you were of color they would automatically sell you a balcony seat," he recalls. "It happened that I preferred the balcony ... but we would demand an orchestra seat which cost more ... Just because "the man" told you you couldn't sit there."

It is this fire and, more importantly, this history that the 63-year-old Dinkins brings to the Big Apple's top job. He has wrestled with it in one way or another throughout his 30-year political career as a state assemblyman, president of the city's elections board, city clerk, Manhattan Borough president, and now, as mayor of the racially torn and tense city where he has lived since 1951.

Today, sitting with Dinkins in his City Hall office where portraits of Paul Robeson and Nelson Mandela hang above the fireplace, two things about that history are imminently clear: A lot has changed since those days. A lot has not.

Today, almost 50 years later, more than one-quarter of White voters joined with 91 percent of Black voters and 65 percent of Hispanic voters to give Dinkins his historic victory. Not only is there no one in the city who would refuse him service, a throng of aides compete with one another to carry out his slightest wish.

Yet despite appearance, the ghost of racism does not rest easily. As Dinkins takes office. New York is poised on a dangerous precipice. In addition to its apocalyptic problems with crime and drugs, racial tension in the city is at an all-time high. Which is why many political analysts believe Dinkins' historic victory last November was the best thing that could have happened to New York. Because Dinkins brings to City Hall such visceral, personal knowledge of the ravages of racism, yet has so visibly and dramatically overcome them, for millions of New Yorkers he is a flame of hope. Those who have suffered oppression have a deep feeling for those who are oppressed. "I feel a special responsibility to all people who are oppressed or ill-treated," acknowledges the mayor.

In fact, many political analysts speculate that Dinkins' background provides an important key to understanding why voters chose him, a Trenton-born grandfather who used to sell shopping bags on 125th Street, to oust three-term Mayor Ed Koch. Raised by his mother (his parents divorced when he was 7) who worked as a domestic to support the family, Mayor Dinkins delivered a powerful message: the dream lives. As one national columnist put it, "For us to have turned David Dinkins down would have been for us to have decided that all dreams were dead ...."

But there was something else--something New Yorker's wanted, needed, longed for and saw in Dinkins: a healer. After 12 years of combative, confrontational government, New York hungered for his cool head, his soft voice, his gift for compromise. "You don't have to be loud to be strong," says the mayor of his management style.

What isn't clear is why Dinkins would want to be mayor of New York. As he takes office, the city faces a projected $1.

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