NEW YORK – Thousands of mourners filled Riverside Church on Wednesday for the funeral of Percy Sutton, a former Tuskegee Airman, a media mogul, power broker and pioneering civil rights attorney who represented Malcolm X.
Among the dignitaries gathered at the church were Attorney General Eric Holder, Gov. David Paterson, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Charles Schumer. Two of Malcolm X’s daughters also attended.
Speaking to the people gathered in the church’s pews, Holder called Sutton “one of the nation’s true heroes.”
“I admired, respected and worked for him,” he continued. “The opportunities given to my generation were paid for by his.”
The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were among a group that escorted Sutton’s relatives into the church. In a chapel near the main sanctuary, Sutton lay in a coffin, dressed in a Navy blue suit, white shirt and a tie.
“The tallest tree in our forest has fallen,” Jackson said of Sutton, who died on Dec. 26. He was 89. “You’ve paved the way, Mr. Chairman. Be at rest,” Jackson concluded.
Bloomberg said that city buildings lowered flags in honor of Sutton, and that a building that houses three Manhattan public schools would be renamed the Percy Ellis Sutton Educational Complex.
Attalah Shabazz, one of Malcolm X’s daughters, said Sutton was not merely her father’s attorney. She said the two were “brethren.”
“Even when things weren’t on his side, he was always on yours. Am I right?” she said to applause from the sanctuary, which was filled to capacity.
U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel and former New York Mayor David Dinkins also attended. And Stevie Wonder sang his hit, “I’ll Be Loving You Always.”
Sutton, who was born in Texas, served with the famed Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black unit, in World War II before coming to Harlem, where he launched a trailblazing career in civil rights, politics and broadcasting. He served in the New York State Assembly and was Manhattan borough president.
Through his Harlem law firm, which he founded in 1953, he represented civil rights activists including Malcolm X and the slain activist’s relatives — even in their darkest times.
Sutton, along with Dinkins, served as attorneys for Malcolm Shabazz, the grandchild of the activist who was 12 when he set the 1997 fire that killed his grandmother, Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow, in her Yonkers apartment.
Sutton turned his attention to broadcasting by 1971, becoming, along with his brother, Oliver, pioneer black owners of a 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.
Through the company, Sutton bought the Apollo Theater in 1981, rescuing the Harlem landmark from impending demise.
Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel, arrived early at the packed church and appeared shaken. She said her family loved and admired Sutton, who was her son’s godfather.
Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, called Sutton a “great man.”
“He was part of a generation that transformed the nation. He was a renaissance man.” Morial said, referring to Sutton’s involvement in law, politics, business and civil rights.
Referring to the throngs of people who lined up outside the church before services waiting to get inside, Morial said, “It is a testament to his incredible contribution, not only to Harlem and New York, but to the nation.”
Morial said young people would do well to study Sutton’s life, particularly his “stick-to-it-ness” and the barriers he overcame.
Dinkins said history would speak of Sutton as one of the most “dynamic, determined and dedicated men who ever walked these streets.”
“Percy Ellis Sutton departed us paid in full,” Dinkins said. “Let him not look down and find any of us in arrears.”