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Percy Sutton, Hero

Percy Sutton, Eminent Politician, Dies at 89

Published: December 27, 2009

Percy E. Sutton, who displayed fierce intelligence and exquisite polish in becoming one of the nation’s most prominent black political and business leaders, died on Saturday, The Associated Press reported. He was 89.

Marissa Shorenstein, a spokeswoman for Gov. David A. Paterson, confirmed Mr. Sutton’s death but said she did not know the cause, according to The A.P.

Mr. Sutton stood proudly at the center of the struggle for equal rights. He was arrested as a freedom rider; represented Malcolm X as young lawyer; rescued the fabled Apollo Theater in Harlem; and became a millionaire tycoon in the communications business to give public voice to African Americans.

He was also an eminent politician in New York City, rising from the Democratic clubhouses of Harlem to become the longest serving Manhattan borough president and, for more than a decade, the highest black official in the city. In 1977, he was the first seriously regarded black candidate for mayor.

His supporters saw his loss in that mayoral race as a stinging rebuff to his campaign’s strenuous efforts to build support among whites. But David N. Dinkins, who was elected the first black mayor in 1989, called Mr. Sutton’s failed bid indispensable to his own success.

“I stand on the shoulders of Percy Ellis Sutton,” Mr. Dinkins said in an interview.

Edward I. Koch, who won the 1977 mayoral vote, said only complicated political maneuvering stifled Mr. Sutton’s bid. He explained that incumbent Mayor Abraham Beame did not step aside as Mr. Sutton had expected, but ran himself, costing Mr. Sutton votes.

“I’m glad God intervened and I became mayor,” Mr. Koch said in an interview. He called Mr. Sutton “one of the smartest people I have met in politics or outside of politics.”

Mr. Sutton’s 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, slightly Southern voice that prompted the nickname “wizard of ooze.” Associates called him “the chairman,” and he liked it.

Percy Ellis Sutton, the last child in a family of 15 children, was born on Nov. 24, 1920, in San Antonio, Tex. His father, Samuel Johnson Sutton, was born into slavery and became principal of a black high school. His mother, Lillian, was a teacher.

The 12 children who survived to be adults went to college, with the older ones giving financial and moral support to the younger.

S. J. Sutton, an early civil rights activist who did not use his first name for fear it would be shortened to Sambo, farmed, sold real estate and owned a mattress factory, funeral home and skating rink — in addition to being a full-time principal.

Percy milked the cows, then rode around San Antonio with his father in the same Studebaker used for funerals, distributing milk to the poor. He liked to attach strings to cans to pretend to be a radio broadcaster. He was an Eagle Scout.

At 12, he stowed away on a passenger train to Manhattan where he slept under a sign on 155th Street. Far from being angry, his family regarded him as an adventurer, he said.

His family was committed to civil rights, and 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 policeman.

He took up stunt-flying on the barnstorming circuit, but gave it up after a friend crashed. He attended three traditionally black colleges without earning a degree. Their present names are Prairie View A & M University in Texas, Tuskegee University in Alabama and Hampton University in Virginia.

During World War II, he served with the Tuskegee Airmen, the famed all-black unit in the Army Air Forces, as an intelligence officer. He won combat stars in the Italian and Mediterranean theaters.

He entered Columbia Law School on the G.I. Bill on the basis of his solid grades at the colleges he attended. He transferred to Brooklyn Law School so he could work days. He worked at the post office from 4 p.m. until midnight, then as a subway train conductor until 8:30 a.m. He then reported to law school at 9:30. He kept this schedule for three years and became a lawyer.

This punishing pace so annoyed his wife, the former Leatrice O’Farrell, that she divorced him in 1950 — only to remarry him in 1952. In between, he married and divorced Eileen Clark.

Mr. Sutton’s survivors include his wife, Leatrice Sutton; a son from their marriage, Pierre; and a daughter from his second marriage, Cheryl Lynn Sutton.After graduating from law school, Mr. Sutton made what he termed “a major miscalculation.” He enlisted in the Air Force because he mistakenly thought he had flunked the bar exam.

He returned to Harlem in 1953 and opened a law practice. The initial going was tough: he had to work at supplemental jobs that included scrubbing floors.

Mr. Sutton threw himself into the civil rights movement. He represented more than 200 people arrested in Southern protests. He heard Malcolm X preaching at the corner of 125th Street and Seventh Avenue. He introduced himself, telling Malcolm he was his new lawyer.

Mr. Sutton represented Malcolm beyond his assassination in 1965, when cemeteries refused his body. Mr. Sutton arranged for his burial in Westchester County.

“Had it not been for Percy, I don’t know where Malcolm would have been buried,” Mr. Dinkins said.

Mr. Sutton represented Malcolm’s daughter Qubilah Shabazz when she was charged in 1995 with hiring a man to kill Louis Farrakhan, the Black Muslim leader she believed was involved in her father’s killing. Charges against her were dropped after she agreed to psychiatric treatment.

In 1997, Ms. Shabazz’s son, Malcolm, then 12, set a fire that killed his grandmother, Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow. Mr. Sutton and Mr. Dinkins teamed up to represent him. At the end of each hearing, the lawyers made “a motion to hug” the boy.

Mr. Sutton took many controversial stands. When Mike Tyson, the boxer and convicted rapist, returned to Harlem from prison in 1995, Mr. Sutton was there to greet him. After the Rev. Al Sharpton refused to pay damages for slandering the prosecutor in the Tawana Brawley case, Mr. Sutton helped pay the fine. Mr. Sutton was arrested for civil disobedience in protesting the shooting and killing of Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant, by four police officers in 1999.

From the early 1950s, he worked in political campaigns, both for others and himself. Mr. Sutton lost seven times in 11 years in challenges to regular Democrats for a state assembly seat, finally winning by a slim margin in 1964. He was elected spokesman for the 13 black assemblymen.

In 1966, Mr. Sutton served as permanent chairman of the Democratic State Convention, the first time in American political history that a black had been selected as permanent chairman at a state convention.

During Mr. Sutton’s one term in the assembly, he helped establish open admissions at the city university; liberalize divorce and abortion laws; and get funding for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

In 1966, the Manhattan borough president, Constance Baker Motley, was appointed to a federal judgeship. The city council in September 1966 chose Mr. Sutton to replace her. He was elected two months later to serve the remaining three years of her term, then re-elected twice, in 1969 and 1973.

Mr. Sutton began investing in communications companies in 1971 when he and a group of prominent blacks bought The New York Amsterdam News, New York’s largest black newspaper. 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 couldn’t help noting that it didn’t exactly subvert Mr. Sutton’s political career when an Amsterdam News writer wrote that he had never seen “a more diligent or competent public official.”)

Mr. Sutton sold his stake in the paper in 1975, calling it “a political liability.”

In 1971, Mr. Sutton and others bought WLIB, a New York AM radio station, making it the first black-owned station in New York City. In 1974, they bought WBLS-FM, which soon became their main profit center with music that appealed to blacks, whites and others.

Mr. Sutton’s group, which he named the Inner City Broadcasting Corporation grew to own, at various times, 18 radio stations in other cities, and cable franchises in Queens and Philadelphia. Mr. Sutton’s principal partner in the various deals was Clarence B. Jones, a close associate of Martin Luther King.

In 1981, Inner City bought the Apollo, the celebrated Harlem theater famed for helping launch careers like those of Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown, at a bankruptcy sale for $225,000. Mr. Sutton presided over a $20 million renovation, which included building a cable television studio used to produce the syndicated TV program, “It’s Showtime at the Apollo.” The theater reopened in 1985.

In 1992, a non-profit group took it over after Mr. Sutton said he could no longer afford to run it. But he continued to produce a TV show, which seemed to draw on the Apollo mystique, though it was taped elsewhere. That sparked a tangled legal brouhaha, with New York State investigating members of the Apollo foundation’s board and Mr. Sutton. All were cleared of wrongdoing.

One of Mr. Sutton’s major controversies was his role in helping his friend, Charles B. Rangel, unseat Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in 1970. Ebony magazine said Mr. Sutton’s role in easing out the congressman known as “Mr. Civil Rights” — however stained he may have then been by ethics charges — “did little to endear him to blacks in New York and across the nation.”

Mr. Sutton insisted that he and Mr. Rangel were not to blame.

“We didn’t beat Adam,” he said. “The times beat Adam.”

Mr. Sutton’s great disappointment was losing his bid for mayor. He had been one of the closest allies of Mayor Beame in the mayor’s 1973 race, and had reason to hope that Mr. Beame would back his own bid in 1977.

Mr. Sutton saw his path to victory as combining minority support with the white liberals and organization Democrats who had supported Mr. Beame. But the mayor delayed in making a decision on running, causing Mr. Sutton to tell The New York Times, “It’s rather castrating to be waiting on others for your future.”

Mr. Beame finally threw his hat in the ring, but Mr. Sutton persisted in his strategy of appealing to whites by taking strong anticrime stands and championing white ethnic neighborhoods. But polls suggested that New Yorkers saw mainly the color of his skin. This, to Mr. Sutton, was “the most disheartening, deprecating, disabling experience.”

Forced to appeal mainly to minority voters, he brought in black politicians from around the nation. It wasn’t enough.

Mr. Sutton finished fifth, and Mr. Beame third. Mr. Koch defeated Mario M. Cuomo, the future governor, in a runoff.

Mr. Sutton blamed the media as much as his opponents. “It’s racism pure and simple,” he declared.

But Mr. Sutton never lost his charismatic smile. He liked to walk through the Uptown neighborhood he had first visited as a 12-year-old runaway, and greet people by name.

“Hey, Mr. Harlem!” they responded.