The father wiped tears from his eyes with a handkerchief. “It’s very hard to watch your children die,” he told the audience. “Look over at the children in this room and imagine their life’s blood running out of them for no other reason than that someone deemed them less than human because of the color of their skin.”
This was an account by New York Times reporter Susan Sachs of a memorial gathering in Harlem in 1999 for 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins. He had been beaten with bats by a mob of white youths in Bensonhurst and then shot to death. It had happened just 10 years earlier, on August 23, 1989.
The father of Yusuf Hawkins, Moses Stewart, spoke poignantly at the memorial: “He died for something I did,” the Times story relates, “as shouts of ‘no, no’ rang from the audience. I’m the one who gave him his color. He was born black because of me.”
After the death of Yusuf Hawkins, racial tension grew in the city. Hawkins had gone to Bensonhurst to look at a used car that was for sale. There was a rumor that a black man was dating a white girl in the neighborhood.
The two men who led the mob that beat and chased Hawkins were tried and convicted. They received prison sentences ranging from 5 1/3 to 32 ½ years.
In the wake of the Hawkins case, racial tensions continued to simmer in the city. Black leaders like the Rev. Al Sharpton led protest marches in Bensonhurst. They were greeted with angry epithets by Bensonhurst residents.
But I remember that other residents of the city were in a more conciliatory mood. David Dinkins was running for mayor at the time and the Hawkins tragedy was seen as an important factor in his election as the first black mayor of New York. It took many years for raw feelings to subside but probably the worst days came right after Hawkins was killed.
Of course, there were bitter confrontations in years to come, including: the conflicts between Korean and black New Yorkers; Hasidic residents of Willliamsburg and Puerto Ricans; and, St. Patrick’s Day parade organizers and gay New Yorkers, just to name a few. New York seems to have seen no end to such conflicts in its history.
Yet I’ll never forget the pathos of that day when Moses Stewart said: “He died for something I did … He was born black because of me.”
I reached David Dinkins and he told me: “We have come a long way since those difficult days after Yusuf Hawkins died. We are by no means perfect. We still have a long way to go.”