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'One tough son of a gun': Tribute to David Dinkins in Harlem

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, left,

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, left, former U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel and the Rev. Al Sharpton attend a tribute for former Mayor David Dinkins at the National Action Network in Harlem on Saturday. Dinkins, the city's only Black mayor, died Monday at age 93. Credit: AFP via Getty Images / Kena Betancur

When Ed Koch, New York City’s 105th mayor, died in 2013, thousands of mourners crammed the heart of Manhattan three days later for his funeral. Standing in front of the honor guard, hand on his heart: David Dinkins, the fellow Democrat who had defeated Koch in 1989 and became the 106th mayor.

But due to the coronavirus pandemic, his family said Tuesday, no public memorial is yet planned for Dinkins, who died Monday at 93.

So on Saturday morning, the activist preacher Al Sharpton, a longtime ally, convened a smaller, unofficial tribute to Dinkins, the city’s only Black mayor.

"He was one tough son of a gun," said Charles Rangel, the former congressman who is the sole living member of the "Gang of Four," the Harlem political coalition that included Dinkins and dominated politics for decades.

Those paying tribute Saturday at Sharpton’s storefront National Action Network in Harlem included current and former government officials, some of whom had worked for, with, or sometimes even against, Dinkins, during his decades in government.

Speakers sought to change the perception of Dinkins’ legacy, which to some was irredeemably tarnished by his response to rising crime and racial unrest, most prominently the three days of rioting in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1991, when Black residents turned against ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents after a Black child was accidentally killed by a Jewish driver. The violence included the stabbing, beating and killing of a religious student by a group of 20 youths who had surrounded him. A state probe faulted Dinkins' handling of the rioting.

In the years since leaving office — he was defeated in 1993 by Republican Rudy Giuliani, who had four years earlier lost the general election to Dinkins — Dinkins’ supporters have called the reputation undeserved, saying he took over a city already riven by racial and economic problems, and they credit him for planting the seeds of New York City’s renaissance with initiatives like hiring thousands more police officers, funding after-school and housing programs, and starting the economic redevelopment of then-seedy Times Square.

"What many have said is lies and not truth," said Hazel Dukes, the former NAACP President and a former leader in Nassau County Democratic politics. She added: "Those of us who sit here today before you, who have worked with David, will see that his legacy live on, with the truth being told to our children, and we will write the history of David Norman Dinkins."

Thirty years after Dinkins took office, his former staffers continue to work in city government, including Bill de Blasio, now the 109th mayor, and Chirlane McCray, de Blasio’s wife.

De Blasio, citing Dinkins’ "Safe Streets, Safe City" program that added the thousands of officers to the NYPD, has said Dinkins helped begin the city’s precipitous drop in crime, which was reaching record highs when Dinkins became mayor.

"The reason we got safer, let's give credit where credit is due, ‘Safe Streets, Safe City,' David Dinkins did that. But never forget what he insisted on. He said, it's not just our traditional notion of public safety," said de Blasio, who met his wife at Dinkins’ City Hall.

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