Percy Sutton: A Peoples’ Aspirations Personified

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)

Harlem Lights

“…(W)hen the lights are on at the Apollo, that’s Percy.”

Yet despite Sutton’s impressive life up to that point, he was still a sideman in the Harlem political scene. Harlem of the ‘50s and early ‘60s was run by two men: Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr and Councilman J. Raymond Jones. At times Sutton referred to the Powell-Jones alliance as “the same old Tammany crowd” in reference to New York City’s longstanding political machine, Tammany Hall. To become the political equal of both men, Sutton waited his time. When opportunity emerged, he seized it.

The opportunity was two-fold. Powell and Jones were two very different men whose alliance was one of convenience and not mutual trust and admiration. Where Powell was an historic, larger-than-life figure with the courage to match his ego, Jones was the ultimate local politician having been involved in Harlem politics since the early ‘20s. His nickname was “The Fox”, and while Powell was “too important” to mentor the next generation of political leaders, Jones kept his ear to the ground and saw promise in Sutton’s pragmatism and reached out to mentor him and three other promising young Harlem lawyers — Basil Paterson, Charles Rangel and David Dinkins. To help mentor the four younger men, Jones founded the Harlem Clubhouse in 1962, which led to Sutton, Paterson, Rangel and Dinkins being tagged with the moniker “The Gang of Four”.

His alliance with the Gang of Four propelled Sutton into the New York State Assembly in 1964, where he quickly became a spokesman for the Assembly’s 13 black members. Just a year later, he became Manhattan Borough President when Constance Baker Motley was assigned a judgeship. With his foot now legitimately in the political door, Sutton continued to build his alliances throughout Harlem but never posing himself as a serious threat to either Powell or Jones.

He didn’t need to; in 1967 both men began to self-destruct. Jones’ downfall was a battle with New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy over a candidate for New York State Supreme Court Justice. In Powell’s case, his extravagances caught up with him as Congress stripped him of his powerful chairmanship of the Education and Labor Committee.

Both men were completely out of political life by 1970, and a year later Sutton made the move that secured his power and vaulted him to the top of Harlem’s political players and powerbrokers. Entering the ‘70s, the concepts of “black power” and “black is beautiful” had taken root in black urban communities throughout the country. With memories of King’s assassination, the black power salute of the Mexico City Olympics, and urban riots still vivid, Sutton organized a group of black investors, primarily Harlem-based, to form a new company called Inner City Broadcasting.

Inner City Broadcasting was formed because Sutton and others were angry at how the majority press depicted black people, and decided that any time they got the chance, they would buy media. At the same time, the enterprise was an expansion into media outlets by a coterie of Sutton’s political allies. In addition to Sutton, some of the other founders were H. Carl McCall, a former State Senator; Clarence Jones, then editor and publisher of The Amsterdam News; David Dinkins; Dr. Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, and John Edmonds, who had served as deputy director of the city’s Community Development Agency.

Other original investors were Harlem Assemblywoman Geraldine Daniels; Reverend Jesse Jackson and his wife, Jacqueline; singer Roberta Flack; jazz pianist Billy Taylor, and a number of members of Sutton’s family. Each of the 63 original investors bought between $500 and $5,000 of company stock at $100 a share. Inner City Broadcasting paid $1.7 million to purchase WLIB, a New York AM radio station whose gospel and rhythm-and-blues format made it popular with black listeners.

Since the sum total of the investors money did not add up to the $1.7 million needed, Sutton had to seek out a bank loan. Even today this would have deterred many men. Instead, in typical Sutton fashion, he welcomed the challenge. Over the course of a year, he walked from bank to bank in search of loans. By the time he was finished, he visited 62 banks before finally getting the loan he needed to secure the deal.

In many ways Inner City Broadcasting was a social business before that term became in vogue, for while Sutton and his group hoped the company would someday become a thriving enterprise, the primary motivation, was to provide an alternative outlet for news of interest to blacks. By 1974 Sutton firmly established himself as Harlem’s top power broker, and set his ambitions on a large political target: becoming mayor of New York City. Sutton ran in 1977 but lost in a close primary race to Ed Koch, and with the loss left elected office for good.

He wasn’t done with taking on challenges, though. When Harlem’s world renowned Apollo Theater filed for bankruptcy in 1980, Sutton stepped in and bought it for $225,000 and then renovated it for more than $20 million. Having an undying love for Harlem, he saw the Apollo’s renovation as critical to the revitalization of Harlem. He turned out to be right. Today 125th St., where the Apollo is located, is a bustling thoroughfare with a healthy mix of national retail chains and local businesses. In short, Harlem owes a lot to Percy Sutton.

Sutton’s life as a soldier, lawyer, politician and businessman left a vast legacy not only to Harlem, but to all of America: “There are those in the generations behind me that may only know him by some remote mentioning of his name,” said Sharpton, “but every time a black person walks into an executive office, that’s Percy. Every time we walk into a black radio station, that’s Percy. Every time a black person runs for political office, that’s Percy. Every time we walk into a black cable station, that’s Percy. And when the lights are on at the Apollo, that’s Percy.”