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Saturday, February 22, 2014

David Dinkins: Montford Point Marine and Former Mayor of New York

"Let's here it for New York....." the chorus to the Jay Z's "Empire State of Mind" mega hit begins. But an older generation might prefer Frank Sinatra's tribute of "New York, New York." I included these popular songs because a former mayor of the "Big Apple" was a Montford Point Marine. He is the honorable David N. Dinkins, who was elected the first African American mayor of New York City. New York is a world class financial, fashion, cultural, and entertainment center. David Dinkins is 86 years old, and currently a Public Affairs Professor at Columbia University. His policies as mayor has had a lasting impact for the city. This Montford Point Marine describes New York City, a population of over eight million, as a "Gorgeous Mosaic" of ethnicities. New York's population ranks among the top three of the United States, according to the United States 2012 census. Interestingly enough, he became a Montford Point Marine the same way he became mayor: Methodically and with persistence.

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David Dinkins was born in Trenton, New Jersey on July 10, 1927. His parents separated when he was a young boy and his mother moved to Harlem, NY and worked as a domestic. The elder Dinkins later remarried and returned to Trenton where David graduated high school. Essentially, his reason for joining the Marines was his desire to remain alive. He was seventeen years old in 1945 and young men from his neighborhood were rapidly becoming fatalities of World War II. David Dinkins decided to take his destiny into his own hands by taking proactive measures:

And I figured a way to stay alive is to be well trained is to be a Marine. And so I tried to enlist in the Marine Corps. Well, the idea is you have to enlist before you get drafted, because once you're drafted, they tell you where you're going. You say you want Navy, they give you Army. (


Life As A Marine

 Unlike men who might have shot themselves in the foot to get out of the service, David Dinkins embarked on a mission. He was so determined to become a Marine that he went to sign up in Camden, Philadelphia, Jersey City, Newark, and New York and each time was told that the quota for Negro soldiers was reached. Shortly thereafter, a physical exam revealed that Dinkins had high blood pressure.* This condition would have exempted him from the military but Dinkins remained steadfast. His blood pressure later was normal. Meanwhile a letter was written to the draft board stating if Dinkins passes the exam to place him in the Marines. On July 10, 1945, he turned eighteen. David registered for the draft and requested immediate induction. A little over a week later he was called. (

The transcript from University of North Carolina provided a glimpse of boot camp life at Montford Point, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. The DIs or drill instructors were tough-- he found out the hard way during his first encounter when he was struck by one. Despite the tough training, the scrawny Dinkins was accepting of it because it meant he had to "toe the line." Again, Dinkins signed up because he wanted to remain alive. He was not looking for a way out of the Corps.

Private David Dinkins remained stateside and was a driver at the base, leaving at 4am under cover of darkness. Dinkins was an ambulance driver, and sprayed DDT** according to the taped interview. He also was an assistant file clerk, since he was proven to be very efficient in the office. When it was time to reenlist he decided not to, and enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. upon the urging of his stepmother, an alum. At first he was not very serious with his studies, as he wanted "to party." David Dinkins then became serious and majored in Mathematics, graduating with honors in 1950. He met the smartest girl in his graduate school math class, Joyce Burrows, who later became his wife. Joyce was the daughter of a New York state assemblymen, which led to Dinkins becoming involved in politics.(, wikipedia)

David Dinkins while in office.

Life As A Politician

After Howard, Dinkins attended, Rutgers for a fellowship in math and then switched to Brooklyn Law School. He graduated in 1956 and started his own firm. Next, he began his ascent into New York City politics by acquiring access to the inner workings of the political machine, economic clout, and a thick skin. David Dinkins:

Became part of an influential group of African American politicians that included Denny Farrell, Percy Sutton, Basil Patterson, and Charles Rangel, the later three together with Dinkins were known as the "Gang of Four".

Also, New York Daily News reported that Dinkins was one of fifty African American investors who helped the late Percy Sutton*** establish the Inner City Broadcasting Corporation in 1971. Inner City Broadcasting Corporation owned the top ranked urban radio station WBLS and saved the famed Apollo Theater from bankruptcy in 1981.

David Dinkins was President of the Board of Elections from 1972-1973, City Clerk 1975-1985 and Manhattan Borough President in 1985. He was elected the 106th mayor of New York City on November 7, 1989, defeating three term mayor Ed Koch, two other democrat candidates and Rudy Giuliani. He was not elected for another term. Many sources cite the handling of the three day long Crown Heights Riots in 1991, the perception of Dinkins being ineffectual with the crime rate, ethnic tensions, and high voter turn out from the borough of Staten Islandv as factors in contributing to his loss. In Dinkin's memoir, released in 2013 called A Mayor's Life: Governing New York's Gorgeous Mosaic, he candidly talks about his defeat and contributions. (, wikipedia)

New York Faced Special Challenges

New York City in the late 80s and early 90s, like many of America's urban cities, faced many special challenges. A recession, unemployment, gangs, crime, the introduction of the crack epidemic and AIDS wreaked havoc on the residents. Many of my readers might remember when New York overall was deemed a dangerous place filled with urban blight. There was racial discord and violence. Films of the era such as New Jack City and Do the Right Thing, come to mind.

The New York Times in 2009 wrote about David Dinkins achievements as mayor. Highlights include:

  • Decreased the New York City crime rate more than any other time in history. This was done by increasing the size of the New York Police Department and the hiring of Raymond W. Kelley as police commissioner. 
  • Instituted Beacon Community Centers that provided a wide range of services.
  • Revitalized a once decaying Times Square and negotiated with Walt Disney Corporation to repair an old 42nd Street theater.
  •  Established significant rehabilitation of dilapidated housing in Harlem, South Bronx and Brooklyn despite budget constraints
  • Procured a 99 year lease from the United States Tennis Association for New York City, cited as the best athletic stadium deal in the country.
  • Enacted policies and actions that reduced the homeless population to its lowest point in 20 years.

David Dinkins also is involved in countless social organizations such as 100 Black Men, Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc., and serves on numerous boards. The Columbia University website lists his implementation of "Safe Streets, Safe City: Cops and Kids" crime reduction program for children in addition to involvement in various municipal leadership organizations.

So there you have an achievement packed life of one Montford Point Marine. David Dinkins decided to be proactive about his military career as a teenager to insure that he did not to become a casualty. He took steps to enlist as a Marine, because he knew that he would receive the best training out of all the Armed forces. He did not give up after five USMC recruitment offices said "No, we reached our Negro quota." Higher ups noting his persistence wrote a letter insisting that he be allowed to become a Marine.

The Congressional award winning Montford Point Marine then later served as an politician for one of the most important cities in the world. Dinkins described New York as a city with the "Gorgeous Mosaic" of people. He established ground-breaking policies for millions of residents and was in office with the largest crime drop in New York City history. Since then, the appealing luster of The Big Apple from a golden era has been restored. More individuals are apt to sing the metropolis' praises in a song, like the two I included in the introductory paragraph.

David Dinkins was able to achieve two important goals in his life; becoming one of the first Black Marines and the first Black mayor of New York City.

Would you have been as persistent as Dinkins in becoming a Marine during WWII?  Have you ever visited or lived in New York in the 1990s? What about today?

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See also:

They Don't Tell You Where You're Going


Notes: *high blood pressure- Incidence of high blood pressure for US Blacks is 41% due to genetics, environmental and social factors. Source:


***Percy Sutton- Also a Congressional Medal Recipient. Sutton was an intelligence officer and an aviation cadet with the Tuskegee Airmen. Sutton, an attorney, provided legal representation for Malcolm X.  Profiled at

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