David Dinkins, who served as the first black mayor of New York City from 1990 to 1993, spoke at a Saybrook College Master’s Tea Wednesday about his life experiences, political opinions, advice, and his love for tennis.
Dinkins — who is known for his efforts to curb crime, poverty and racism — spoke to about 35 students, many of whom were from New York.
He began the tea by describing his experiences growing up in New Jersey and then Harlem. He described the racism he faced after joining the Marine Corps during World War II.
“After the war, I had friends who had faced combat,” Dinkins said. “Some had shrapnel in their bodies, but we still couldn’t shop in downtown Washington, the nation’s capital, because we were black.”
After receiving a math degree from Howard University and a law degree from Brooklyn Law School, Dinkins became involved in politics. He was eventually elected Manhattan borough president in 1985 and mayor in 1989. He said he gives much credit for his election to another black man, Percy Sutton, who ran for mayor in 1977.
“Everybody stands on somebody’s shoulders,” Dinkins said.
Dinkins encouraged students to show compassion to others and speak out against discrimination.
“I’m not asking you to lie down in front of a bulldozer to protest,” Dinkins said. “But speak up if you know something is wrong.”
Valerie Idehen ’04 attended a New York City public school at the time Dinkins was elected.
“I remember how remarkable it felt when he won, for an African American man to be mayor,” said Idehan. “In my classroom, we had a ‘Vote Dinkins’ poster, and I remember, the day he was elected, we learned the word ‘triumph.’ I feel lucky to be able to see him now in an intimate setting.”
Economics professor Sonia Pereira, who teaches about poverty and welfare policy, said she found Dinkins’s talk very relevant to her interests.
“I really liked his sense of mission, that he wanted to stimulate students to speak up for their beliefs,” Pereira said.
Omar Rouchon ’07 said he is interested in politics and law. Rouchon said he found Dinkins to be well-spoken and inspiring.
“I’m from New York State, and my parents are big fans of Dinkins,” Rouchon said. “It was interesting to hear the story of his life and how he was able to move from the bottom on up.”
During the question and answer session which followed his talk, Dinkins offered his opinions about current politicians.
He said current New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a philanthropist and “a good person,” but not a politician. But Dinkins said he thinks Bloomberg is doing better than his polls indicate.
When asked if he ever supported Reverend Al Sharpton’s presidential run, Dinkins said although Sharpton was his friend, he did not back his campaign. Dinkins initially endorsed General Wesley Clark as the Democratic presidential candidate; now he supports John Kerry.
“Sometimes it’s important to make a statement, and sometimes it’s important to win. Now is one of those times it is important to win,” Dinkins said. “I think George Bush is a disaster.”
Dinkins currently teaches at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. He also hosts a public radio show. Additionally, as a board member of the New York Junior Tennis League, Dinkins said he hopes to encourage youth to succeed through tennis.
He plays tennis every week.
“I’m almost 77, but my forehand is considerably younger,” Dinkins said.