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Mario Cuomo And Racial Matters

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During Mario Cuomo's time as Governor of New York he dealt with racial issues very similar to the ones making headlines today.

"We owe one another an obligation of dignity and fairness and respect. You understand that, because that's the way you treat brothers and sisters. So remember that." Mario Cuomo was hailed as "a man of the people," a governor who worked and lived in the Capital City.

"He played baseball down at Lincoln Park. The governor would come down and say 'Hey can I jump in on shortstop, at second base,' and he would play, and they couldn't believe the governor of New York was playing baseball with us.”  Albany County Executive Dan McCoy adds that Cuomo was often seen walking through neighborhoods surrounding the Governor's mansion on Eagle Street.

Cuomo was known to be affable and engageable - and would often stop and talk with people on the sidewalks. 

Alice Green, Executive Director of The Center for Law and Justice in Albany, recalls the governor attended the graduation ceremony when she received her doctorate.   "He came in at a time when I was very interested in becoming more involved in the criminal justice system. He seemed to be very interested in diversifying the higher level staff in state government.  He appointed a number of African-Americans to high-level positions. As a matter of fact, he appointed me to be deputy commissioner of probational and correctional alternatives. He also came into office at a time when there was a great deal of discussion and divisiveness actually, over establishing the Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday."

The days of the Mario Cuomo administration were punctuated by social strife and incidents of racism just as compelling and as headline-making as the Ferguson-driven stories of today.  New York City was pockmarked in the turbulent 1980s with a series of incidents involving police and allegations of brutality, insensitivity and racism.

Former New York State Assemblyman and Albany Historian Jack McEneny :    "Racism is something that pops its ugly head up regularly in every society. It was something he had to deal with."

There was the Michael Stewart case - the black Graffiti Artist and model who died on a lower Manhattan subway platform from a chokehold and beating he received from several police officers.   Eleanor Bumpers, an elderly grandmother, was killed by a policeman in her Bronx apartment as officers tried to evict her.   Bernhard Goetz shot and seriously wounded four black teenagers he thought were going to rob him on a subway train in Manhattan.

And perhaps most notably there was Howard Beach, which spawned angry protests by the city's black residents - three black men whose car had broken down in the all-white area were attacked by a gang of white youths. One of them was struck and killed by a motor vehicle after the angry mob chased him onto the belt parkway.

Howard Beach triggered a string of other racially-charged attacks - Mario Cuomo established a task force on bias-related violence to suggest how New York could deter racial violence while addressing its causes and effects.

Albany Community Advocate Marlon Anderson admires Mario Cuomo as a governor who "stood up" for social justice.   "He put the power of his office behind trying to solve those problems. Granted, a lot didn't get solved, a lot didn't get addressed, but he did do a lot more than what politicians of today are doing. He did not shy away from the racial issues. He wasn't a silent governor when it came to addressing it."

Cuomo named Charles Hynes as a special prosecutor to investigate the Howard Beach case. As the chief trial lawyer, Hynes won three convictions for manslaughter and prevailed on the judge to impose consecutive, rather than concurrent, sentences.

Again, Jack McEneney:   "Anybody who came of age in the sixties watched the cities of this country, whether it was Newark or Chicago or Washington or even Rochester, we watched the cities burning. And riots. And tensions. And I think any governor, when today, has to remember that that ugly possibility is still out there. It's a very sensitive issue and you have to know how to handle it, especially verbally, especially appealing to the right instincts, not overreacting, even though, politically, there's a great temptation to go on one side or another, and that's the difference between a politician and a statesman, and he made every effort to be an appropriate statesman as governor."

Alice Green remembers Mario Cuomo attending and participating in the very first walk in Albany in support of the new Martin Luther King holiday.    "And he was there every year after that, as far as I can remember. He led the march, usually, with Harry Belafonte and a couple of other celebrities. He did the entire walk, and I was always impressed with that. He was very supportive of establishing the New York State Martin Luther Junior Commission and Institute for Non-Violence. I think the Commission was actually started in 1985, and it was really modeled after the Martin Luther Junior Center for Non-Violence and Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia. So, he was very very supportive of that, and I know he had great support in the African-American community because of the work that he did in that area. And of course I remember him most because at this time there was a great deal of discussion about the death penalty. There were many in New York State that wanted to bring it back to New York. Mario Cuomo as you know, was steadfast in his resistance to that."

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