The Famous Gang of Four

By Lloyd Williams, President
The Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce

For nearly two decades a few Black men–four friends to be exact, held power and influence in New York politics, particularly anything that had to do with Harlem. Such was their bond that in 1973, a disgruntled Herman Badillo, who they did not support on his second attempt to become Mayor of New York City, dubbed them the “Gang of Four.” Meant to be an insult, the moniker likened them to the infamous four radical political elites of the Chinese Communist Party. Instead, they turned a negative into a positive and David Dinkins, Percy Sutton, Charles Rangel, and Basil Paterson went on to reign as the Gang of Four in politics, community service, business, media, and civil rights—always remaining close friends. Together and singularly, the legendary “Gang of Four” amassed a record of historic political success, boundless civic service, and achievements in business. They never forgot where they came from, and their deep love and concern for their Black brothers and sisters propelled them to greatness.

(July 10, 1927 – November 23, 2020)

Born in Trenton, New Jersey,David Dinkins enlisted in the US Marine Corps in 1945 and later attended Howard University on the GI Bill. At Howard, Dinkins studied Mathematics and graduated cum laude in 1950. It was at Howard that he met his future wife, Joyce Burrows.

After graduating from Brooklyn Law School, Dinkins became involved in New York politics. He was elected to the State Assembly in 1965; NY City Clerk in 1974; and Manhattan Borough President in 1985. In 1989 Dinkins won the democratic primary for NYC Mayor defeating Ed Koch’s bid for a fourth term. He then defeated Republican candidate former US Attorney General Rudy Giuliani, to become the first African American Mayor of the City of New York.

While Mayor, Dinkins designed key development deals to revitalize the city’s economy, and fostered the renovation of Times Square and the US Open in Queens with the United States Tennis Association. Dinkins also revitalized and reorganized the New York City Police Department and fostered increased community NYPD involvement.

After leaving City Hall, Dinkins hosted a radio program on WBLS.FM/WLIB.AM called Dialogue with Dinkins. He joined the faculty of Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and in 2012 received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service with the Marines. The following year he published his memoir, A Mayor’s Life: Governing NY’s Gorgeous Mosaic. One of the highlights of his term occurred when, in June of 1990, Nelson Mandela, following his release from prison in then Apartheid South Africa, made New York City the first stop on his Freedom tour. Mayor Dinkins greeted and hosted the heroic freedom fighter at Gracie Mansion and throughout his visit in the city. Along with Congressman Rangel, Dinkins for many years had publicly opposed the inhuman apartheid system in South Africa. Mandela became the first Black president of South Africa.

In 2015, Dinkins was honored for his decades of public service. Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City of New York renamed the Manhattan architectural landmark, the Municipal Building, in honor of David N. Dinkins.

Dinkins was a co-founder of HARLEM WEEK; an executive member of The Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce; a founding member of One Hundred Black Men of New York; a founding member of the New York State Black & Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus; and a senior executive of the NAACP, to name a few. Dinkins had two children David Dinkins, Jr. and Donna.

(November 24, 1920 – December 26, 2009)

A prominent American political and business leader, Percy Sutton was also an activist in the civil rights movement, a lawyer, and a “Freedom Rider.” Sutton was born in San Antonio, Texas, the youngest of 15 children. His father, “S.J.” Sutton was a civil rights advocate and one of the first Black civil servants, teachers, and civil administrators in Texas. His family was committed to civil rights. Sutton bristled at prejudice.

Percy Sutton and Leatrice O’Farrel married in New York City in 1943.They had two children, Pierre and Cheryl. During World War II, he served as an intelligence officer with the Tuskegee Airmen, the famous group of African American pilots who flew with great distinction during World War II.

In the 1950s and 60s, Sutton became one of America’s best-known lawyers. He represented many important and controversial figures including Malcolm X. A longtime leader in Harlem politics, he was a principal of the Harlem Clubhouse—also known as “The House of the Gang of Four.” He was a member of the New York State Assembly in 1965 and 1966. In 1966, Sutton was elected Borough President of Manhattan. He served in that post until 1977 when he ran for the Democratic nomination for New York City Mayor against Bella Abzug, Herman Badillo, Mario Cuomo, Ed Koch, and incumbent Mayor Abraham Beame. Koch won the nomination and the general election. However, the favorable response to Sutton’s candidacy firmly demonstrated that New York City would soon be ready for a Black mayor, thereby paving the way for the future election of David Dinkins. Sutton later became an outstanding entrepreneur whose key investments included the NY Amsterdam News, and the world-famous Apollo Theater.

Sutton co-founded Inner City Broadcasting Corporation, and purchased New York City’s WLIB-AM, radio station which became the city’s first African American owned station. He also produced It’s Showtime at the Apollo, a syndicated music television show broadcast nationally. He also co-founded Blackfrica Promotions in 1970; HARLEM WEEK in 1974; and served as chairman of The Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce from 2005 to 2009.

June 11, 1930 –

Born in Harlem, Charles Rangel still makes his home there. His father, Ralph Rangel, emigrated from Puerto Rico; his mother, Blanche Mary Wharton, was from New York City. Rangel enlisted in the US Army and served from 1948 to 1952, where he was an artillery operations specialist in the all Black 503 Field Artillery Battalion. Those in Rangel’s unit looked up to him as a natural leader and although he was only a private first class, he gained the nickname “Sarge.” Rangel received a Purple Heart for his wounds in Korea; the Bronze Star with Valor for his actions in the face of death; as well as three battle stars. He left the Army in 1952 with an honorary discharge and the rank of staff sergeant. Taking advantage of the GI Bill, Rangel attended college and graduated from New York University in 1957 and St. John’s University School of Law in 1960.

Rangel worked as a private lawyer, Assistant US Attorney, and legal counsel during the early 1960s. He served two terms in the NY State Assembly from 1967 to 1971 and then defeated long-time incumbent Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in a tightly contested primary challenge on his way to the US House of Representatives. Once there, Rangel rose rapidly in the Democratic ranks combining his solidly liberal views with a pragmatic approach toward finding political and legislative compromises. He became chair of the House Committee on Narcotics and helped define national policies on the issues during the 1980s. Rangel rose to the historic rank of Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, the most powerful committee in Congress.

As one of Harlem’s “Gang of Four,” he became a groundbreaker in city, state, and national politics. He played the lead role in the 1995 creation of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation and the National Empowerment Zone Act, which helped permanently change the economic face of Harlem and many other inner-city areas across the nation.

Rangel has long been outspoken about his views and has been arrested several times as part of political, international, civil rights, and human rights demonstrations. During the 2012 and 2014 Congressional elections, he faced two strong primary challenges but prevailed. He chose not to run for reelection in 2016 and retired from Congress in January of 2017.

Rangel, fondly known as the “Lion of Lenox Avenue,” is a co-founder of HARLEM WEEK, Harlem Urban Development Corporation, and The Apollo Theater Foundation. He served as an executive in the NAACP, One Hundred Black Men of New York, and many other key organizations in New York, nationally, and internationally. He is married to the love of his life, Alma. They have two children, Alicia and Steven.

( April 27, 1926 – April 16, 2014)

He was born in Harlem. His mother, Evangeline Rondon, worked as a secretary to the activist Marcus Garvey. After two years in the army, Paterson entered St. John’s Law School and received his degree in 1951. He then began his professional career as a lawyer in Harlem where he soon became law partners with David Dinkins. They formed the famous law firm, Paterson, Michael, Dinkins and Jones LLP.

Paterson and Dinkins became heavily involved in Harlem politics along with Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton and Congressman Charles Rangel—the “Gang of Four.” He was elected to the NY State Senate in 1965 where he remained until he won the primary and became the Democratic nominee for New York State Lieutenant Governor in 1970. The Democratic ticket, led by Arthur Goldberg, lost to incumbent Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Nevertheless, Basil immediately became a national political icon.

Paterson became president and CEO of the Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution in 1972. He was the first elected African American vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1972. In 1978, Mayor Ed Koch appointed him Deputy Mayor and in 1979, Governor Hugh Carey appointed him NY State Secretary of State, making him the first African American to hold that most prestigious position. Paterson’s son, David Paterson, who also served as NY State Senator from Harlem, won the election for New York State Lieutenant Governor in 2006. In 2008, David became governor when Elliott Spitzer resigned.

After leaving public office, Paterson became a senior partner at the prestigious firm of Meyer, Suozzi, and English & Klein.

Basil and the love of his life, Portia, married in 1953. They had two sons, Daniel and David. Wherever he went, no matter how near or far, Basil was known as “Mr. Harlem.”