Percy Sutton, Lawyer For Malcolm X, Dies At 89

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Obit Sutton

NEW YORK — Percy Sutton, the pioneering civil rights attorney who represented Malcolm X before launching successful careers as a political power broker and media mogul, has died. He was 89.

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Marissa Shorenstein, a spokeswoman for Gov. David Paterson, confirmed that Sutton died Saturday. She did not know the cause. His daughter, Cheryl Sutton, declined to comment Saturday when reached by phone at her New York City home.

The son of a slave, Percy Sutton became a fixture on 125th Street in Harlem after moving to New York City following his service with the famed Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. His Harlem law office, founded in 1953, represented Malcolm X and the slain activist’s family for decades.

The consummate politician, Sutton served in the New York State Assembly before taking over as Manhattan borough president in 1966, becoming the highest-ranking black elected official in the state.

Sutton also mounted unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. Senate and mayor of New York, and served as political mentor for the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s two presidential races.

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Jackson recalled Sutton talking about electing a black president as early as 1972. Sutton was influential in getting his 1984 campaign going, he said.

“He never stopped building bridges and laying the groundwork,” Jackson said Sunday. “We are very glad to be the beneficiaries of his work.”

In a statement released Saturday night, Gov. David Paterson called Sutton a mentor and “one of New York’s and this nation’s most influential African-American leaders.”

“Percy was fiercely loyal, compassionate and a truly kind soul,” Paterson continued. “He will be missed but his legacy lives on through the next generations of African-Americans he inspired to pursue and fulfill their own dreams and ambitions.”

In 1971, with his brother Oliver, Sutton purchased WLIB-AM, making it the first black-owned radio station in New York City. His Inner City Broadcasting Corp. eventually picked up WBLS-FM, which reigned for years as New York’s top-rated radio station, before buying stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit and San Antonio between 1978-85.

The Texas purchase marked a homecoming for the suave and sophisticated Sutton, born in San Antonio on Nov. 24, 1920, the youngest of 15 children.

Among Sutton’s other endeavors was his purchase and renovation of the famed Apollo Theater when the Harlem landmark’s demise appeared imminent.

Sutton’s father, Samuel, was born into slavery just before the Civil War. The elder Sutton became principal at a segregated San Antonio high school, and he made education a family priority: All 12 of his surviving children attended college.

When he was 13, Percy Sutton endured a traumatic experience that drove him inexorably into the fight for racial equality. A police officer approached Sutton as the teen handed out NAACP pamphlets. “N—–, what are you doing out of your neighborhood?” he asked before beating the youth.

When World War II arrived, Sutton’s enlistment attempts were rebuffed by Southern white recruiters. The young man went to New York, where he was accepted and joined the Tuskegee Airmen.

After the war, Sutton earned a law degree in New York while working as a post office clerk and a subway conductor. He served again as an Air Force intelligence officer during the Korean War before returning to Harlem in 1953 and establishing his law office with brother Oliver and a third partner, George Covington.

In addition to representing Malcolm X for a decade until his 1965 assassination, the Sutton firm handled the cases of more than 200 defendants arrested in the South during the 1963-64 civil rights marches. Sutton was also elected to two terms as president of the New York office of the NAACP.

After Malcolm’s assassination, Sutton worked as lawyer for Malcolm’s widow, Betty Shabazz. He represented her grandson, 12-year-old Malcolm Shabazz, when the youth was accused of setting a 1997 fire that caused her death.

Sutton was elected to the state Legislature in 1965, and quickly emerged as spokesman for its 13 black members. His charisma and eloquence led to his selection as Manhattan borough president in 1966, completing the term of Constance Baker Motley, who was appointed federal judge.

Two years later, Sutton announced a run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Jacob Javits, although he pulled out of the Democratic primary to back Paul O’Dwyer.

Sutton remained in his Manhattan job through 1977, the same year he launched a doomed campaign for mayor that ended with Edward I. Koch defeating six competitors for the Democratic nomination.

Sutton was among the first voices raised against the Vietnam War, surrendering his delegate’s seat at the 1968 Democratic convention in protest and supporting anti-war candidate George McGovern four years later against incumbent President Richard Nixon.

In addition to his radio holdings, Sutton also headed a group that owned The Amsterdam News, the second largest black weekly newspaper in the country. The paper was later sold.

Sutton’s devotion to Harlem and its people was rarely more evident than when he spent $250,000 to purchase the shuttered Apollo Theater in 1981. The Apollo turned 70 in 2004, a milestone that was unthinkable until Sutton stepped in to save the landmark.

Sutton “retired” in 1991, but his work as an adviser, mentor and confidante to politicians and businessmen never abated. He was among a group of American businessmen selected during the Clinton administration to attend meetings with the Group of Seven (G-7) Nations in 1995-96.

“He was a great man,” said Charles Warfield Jr., the president and chief operating officer of ICBC Broadcast Holdings Inc., when reached early Sunday. He declined to comment further out of respect for the wishes of Sutton’s family. The Rev. Al Sharpton planned a news conference Sunday to talk about Sutton’s life and legacy.

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