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trailblazer in New York politics, media and business, dies at 89
The N.Y. Times (December
Percy E. Sutton, a pioneering figure who represented Malcolm X as a
young lawyer and became one of the nationís most prominent black
political and business leaders, died in a Manhattan nursing home on
Saturday, his family said. He was 89.
Entering politics in the early 1950s, Mr. Sutton rose from the
Democratic clubhouses of Harlem to become the longest-serving Manhattan
borough president and, for more than a decade, the highest-ranking black
elected official in New York City.
Mr. Sutton, whose passion for civil rights was inherited from his
father, was arrested as a Freedom Rider in Mississippi and Alabama in
the 1960s, yet once described himself as "an evolutionist rather than a
revolutionist" in matters of race. "You ought always to keep the lines
of communication open with those with whom you disagree," he said.
He was the senior member of the group of prominent Harlem politicians
who became known, sometimes derisively, as the Gang of Four. The other
three were David N. Dinkins, New Yorkís first black mayor;
Representative Charles B. Rangel; and Basil A. Paterson, who was a state
senator and New Yorkís secretary of state. Mr. Sutton was also a mentor
to Mr. Patersonís son, Gov. David A. Paterson.
"It was Percy Sutton who talked me into running for office, and who has
continued to serve as one of my most valued advisers ever since,"
Governor Paterson said in a statement on Saturday night.
In a statement on Sunday, President Obama called Mr. Sutton "a true hero
to African-Americans in New York City and around the country."
Mr. Sutton was the first seriously regarded black candidate for mayor
when he ran in 1977. But after he finished fifth in a seven-way
Democratic primary, his supporters saw the loss as a stinging rebuke of
his campaignís strenuous efforts to build support among whites. Still,
Mr. Dinkins, who was elected in 1989, called Mr. Suttonís failed bid
indispensable to his own success.
"I stand on the shoulders of Percy Ellis Sutton," he later said.
Mr. Suttonís business empire included, over the years, radio stations,
cable television systems and national television programs. Another
business invested in Africa. Still another sold interactive technology
to radio stations.
Mr. Sutton had an immaculately groomed beard and mustache, tailored
clothing and a sonorous voice that prompted a nickname, "wizard of
ooze." Associates called him "the chairman," a nickname more to his
Percy Ellis Sutton, the last child in a family of 15 children, was born
on Nov. 24, 1920, in San Antonio and grew up on a farm nearby in Prairie
View, Tex. His father, Samuel Johnson Sutton, born in the last days of
slavery, was the principal of a segregated high school in San Antonio.
His mother, Lillian, was a teacher.
The 12 children who survived into adulthood went to college, with the
older ones giving financial and moral support to the younger. (One of
the brothers, Oliver C. Sutton, became a State Supreme Court justice in
His father was an early civil rights activist who farmed, sold real
estate and owned a mattress factory, a funeral home and a skating rink
-- in addition to being a full-time educator.
Percy milked the cows and sometimes helped his father deliver milk to
the poor, riding in the same Studebaker that was used for funerals.
At 12, he stowed away on a passenger train to New York, where he slept
under a sign on 155th Street. Far from being angry, his family regarded
him as an adventurer, he later said.
From an early age, he bristled at prejudice. At 13, while passing out
N.A.A.C.P. leaflets in an all-white neighborhood, he was beaten by a
Mr. Sutton attended Prairie View A & M, as well as Tuskegee in Alabama
and Hampton University in Virginia, without earning a degree. During
college, he took up stunt-flying on the barnstorming circuit, but gave
it up after a friend crashed.
When World War II began, he tried to enlist in Texas but was turned
away. He finally enlisted in New York, and served as an intelligence
officer with the Tuskegee Airmen, the famed all-black unit of the Army
Air Forces. He won combat stars in the Italian and Mediterranean
After the war, Mr. Sutton entered Columbia Law School on the G.I. Bill
on the basis of his solid college grades, but transferred to Brooklyn
Law School because he worked two jobs -- at a post office from 4 p.m.
until midnight, then as a subway conductor until 8:30 in the morning. He
reported to law school at 9:30. This schedule continued for three years
until he graduated.
The punishing pace so annoyed his wife, the former Leatrice OíFarrell,
that she divorced him in 1950 -- only to remarry him in 1952. In
between, he married and divorced Eileen Clark.
Mr. Sutton is survived by his wife, Leatrice; a son from their marriage,
Pierre; a daughter from his second marriage, Cheryl Lynn Sutton; his
sister, Essie Mae Sutton of New York; and four grandchildren.
After law school, Mr. Sutton made what he called "a major
miscalculation" -- enlisting in the Air Force because he mistakenly
thought he had failed the bar exam.
He served in the Korean War, and in 1953 opened a law practice in
Harlem. The initial going was tough; he had to take extra jobs, one of
which involved scrubbing floors.
Mr. Sutton threw himself into the civil rights movement, representing
more than 200 people arrested in protests in the South. He heard Malcolm
X preaching at 125th Street and Seventh Avenue and introduced himself,
telling the activist that he was his new lawyer.
Mr. Sutton represented Malcolm X beyond his assassination in 1965, when
cemeteries refused his body. Mr. Sutton arranged for burial in
"Had it not been for Percy, I donít know where Malcolm would have been
buried," Mr. Dinkins said.
In the 1950s, Mr. Sutton worked in political campaigns, both for others
and for himself. He lost seven times in 11 years in challenges to
established Democrats for a State Assembly seat, finally winning by a
slim margin in 1964.
In 1966, the Manhattan borough president, Constance Baker Motley, was
appointed to a federal judgeship, and the City Council chose Mr. Sutton
to replace her. He was elected that fall to serve the remaining three
years of her term, then was re-elected twice, in 1969 and 1973. When the
Beame administration, engulfed in the fiscal crisis, could not come up
with the $20,000 needed to expand the New York City Marathon into a
five-borough race in 1976, Mr. Sutton solicited $25,000 from Lewis and
Jack Rudin, the real estate executives..
In 1973, Mr. Sutton threw his support to Abraham D. Beame, who faced a
strong challenge from Representative Herman Badillo. Mr. Sutton hoped
that, in return, Mr. Beame would support him in 1977 in the race for
mayor of New York.
Mr. Sutton saw his path to victory as combining minority support with
that of the white liberals and organization Democrats who had elevated
Mr. Beame. But the mayor delayed making a decision on running for
re-election, causing Mr. Sutton to tell The New York Times, "Itís rather
castrating to be waiting on others for your future."
Mr. Beame finally decided to run again, and Mr. Sutton embraced a
strategy of appealing to whites by taking strong anti-crime stands and
championing white ethnic neighborhoods. But polls suggested that many
New Yorkers saw mainly the color of his skin. This, to Mr. Sutton, was
"the most disheartening, deprecating, disabling experience."
As the Democratic primary grew more crowded, with seven candidates
running, Mr. Sutton eventually switched tactics and tried to shore up
his black support. It was not enough, though the eventual victor, Edward
I. Koch, later called Mr. Sutton "one of the smartest people I have met
in politics or outside of politics."
Mr. Sutton blamed the news media as much as his opponents for his
defeat. "Itís racism pure and simple," he declared.
Mr. Sutton began investing in media companies in 1971, while he was
Manhattan borough president, and he was part of a group that bought The
New York Amsterdam News, New Yorkís largest black newspaper. Later that
year, the same groupís purchase of an AM station, WLIB, made it the
first black-owned radio station in New York.
Critics said the borough president was using the weekly to further his
own political career, but he insisted he wanted to "liberate" blacks by
expanding their influence in the media.
(Skeptics could not help noting that an Amsterdam News writer wrote that
he had never seen "a more diligent or competent public official" than
Mr. Sutton sold his stake in the paper in 1975, calling it "a political
In 1974, he and his investors bought WBLS-FM, and the group, Inner City
Broadcasting, grew to own, at various times, 18 radio stations in other
cities and cable franchises in Queens and Philadelphia.
In 1981, Inner City, of which Mr. Sutton was chairman, bought the
Apollo, the celebrated Harlem theater, at a bankruptcy sale for
$225,000. He presided over a $20 million renovation, which included
building a cable television studio used to produce the syndicated
television program "Itís Showtime at the Apollo." The theater reopened
In 1992, a nonprofit foundation took over the theater after Mr. Sutton
said he could no longer afford to run it. Some years later, Mr. Sutton
became a defendant in a lawsuit by the state attorney general, Dennis C.
Vacco, that accused the foundation, of which Mr. Rangel was chairman, of
failing to collect $4 million from Inner City. Mr. Sutton denied
wrongdoing, and the suit was eventually settled. When Inner City began
producing a program called "Showtime in Harlem" in 2002, the theater
accused the company of violating the Apollo trademark and filed suit.
Feuds and controversies materialized in Mr. Suttonís political career,
as well. There was bitterness between him and Mr. Badillo over the 1977
mayoral race -- when the supporters of each accused the other of
splitting the black and Hispanic vote -- as well as the 1985 race, when
Mr. Sutton and other Harlem leaders refused to endorse Mr. Badillo. They
instead backed Assemblyman Herman D. Farrell Jr.
In 1970, Mr. Sutton was criticized when he helped Mr. Rangel unseat
Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Ebony magazine said Mr. Suttonís
actions "did little to endear him to blacks in New York and across the
Mr. Sutton sometimes recalled how his father would not let his children
play in a segregated San Antonio park on the one day of the year that
they were allowed in -- on June 19, the anniversary of Texasís
implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation.
But Mr. Sutton also remembered something else he had learned from his
father: "Suffer the hurts, but donít show the anger, because if you do,
it will block you from being able to effectively do anything to remove