More than 3,000 people attended Percy Ellis Sutton’s funeral at Riverside Church on 26 December 2009, a man who personified the aspirations of African-Americans of the 20th century leading into the 21st century. The outpouring of love for the man known as the “Father of Modern Harlem” was evidenced in the kind words said about him.
Among those who spoke were U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Many recalled how Sutton had given them advice or had stood with them during struggles – or had laid the foundation for their own success. Holder called Sutton “one of the nation’s true heroes. I admired, respected and worked for him. The opportunities given to my generation were paid for by the hard work and sacrifice of his. Without him, there would be no me… Generations of other African American lawyers stand on his strong, broad shoulders.”
Reverend Al Sharpton eulogized Sutton by recalling the 1999 police killing of Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant gunned down in the Bronx when police mistook his wallet for a gun. Sutton, then 79, laid down in protest outside police headquarters. “Even when he was a multimillionaire, a media mogul, owned radio stations, welcomed in the White House and any other place of significance, he laid down in front of police headquarters for a West African boy he never knew.”
Bloomberg ordered the flags at city buildings lowered in honor of Sutton and announced that a building that houses three Manhattan public schools would be renamed the Percy Ellis Sutton Educational Complex. “Whatever opportunities New York City gave to Percy, he repaid them a thousand times over,” Bloomberg said. “Because of him, the doors of City University were opened to all students. Because of him, black radio became a fixture on the dial.”
The most telling statement made about Sutton’s influence on Americans, however, was short and sweet. “Percy Sutton was black and proud before James Brown asked us to be,” said Clarence B. Jones, an advisor and speechwriter for Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
Percy Sutton was born one of 12 children in the Jim Crow South in San Antonio, Texas in 1920. His mother was a teacher and his father was an early civil-rights activist, a high school principal, a farmer, a real estate agent and a businessman that owned no less than three companies including a mattress factory, a funeral home, and a skating rink. With such high achieving parents, it’s easy to see why Sutton was “black and proud”, but for all the pride and accomplishment in his family tree, it was still the Jim Crow South and back then a black man walked a thin line between having pride and having that pride send you to an early demise.
Sutton learned just how dangerous Texas of the ‘30s was, when at age 13 a police officer approached him for handing out NAACP pamphlets in a white neighborhood. “Nigger, what are you doing out of your neighborhood?” asked the officer. He then proceeded to beat the young teenager. If not for some people of conscience who intervened, Sutton very well may have been just another victim of the lethal violence that characterized much of Jim Crow. Yet rather than cower after such a beating, Sutton was driven to excellence. By age 16 he became an Eagle Scout—the highest scouting rank achievable - -in the Boy Scouts of America.
A few years later, imbued with a passion for freedom and justice, Sutton began the first chapter of his young adult life. He fought in World War II and became part of the legendary black group of army soldiers known as the Tuskegee Airmen. As an airman, he flew sorties over the Italian and Mediterranean theaters of operation and earned combat stars as an intelligence officer with the 332nd Fighter Group’s black 99th Pursuit Squadron.
Once the war was over, Sutton moved north to New York City and earned a law degree at Brooklyn Law School while working as a post office clerk and a subway conductor. When the Korean War broke out Sutton re-enlisted, serving as an Air Force intelligence officer. He returned to New York in 1953 and opened a law office in Harlem with his brother Oliver and a third partner named George Covington.
Sutton’s most famous legal client was Malcolm X, whom he represented for over a decade until Malcolm’s assassination in 1965. In addition to being Malcolm’s attorney, Sutton was a busy civil rights attorney who handled more than 200 cases of people arrested during civil rights marches in the south. Representing a black nationalist like Malcolm as well as rank and file folk of the integrationist civil rights movement demonstrated Sutton’s pragmatism in placing the struggle for justice for black people above specific ideologies in that struggle.
Percy Sutton, with Betty Shabazz after she identified the body of her husband, Malcolm X, in New York City. (United Press International/File 1965)