An African American Icon: Percy Sutton (11/24/1920 €" 12/26/2009)
William Reed | 1/6/2010, 3:20 p.m.
Percy Ellis Sutton, an African American pioneer, trailblazer and attorney who made himself successful in careers as a political power broker and media mogul, has died at 89. He paved the way in media for Cathy Hughes and Robert Johnson. Al Sharpton said Sutton €personified the Black experience of the 20th century."
While many Blacks glorified Barack Obama for his €crossover appeal€, Sutton deserves adoration for work and achievements for and among his race. President Obama called Sutton "a true hero" to African Americans.
"His life-long dedication to the fight for civil rights and career as an entrepreneur and public servant made the rise of countless young African Americans possible," Obama said.
The Governor of New York, David Paterson, called Sutton €a mentor€ and "one of this nation's most influential African American leaders."
"His legacy lives on through generations of African Americans he inspired," Paterson said.
Born in San Antonio, Texas, Percy E. Sutton was the last of 15 children of Samuel and Lillian Sutton. Both of his parents were educators; his father, born into slavery, became principal of three high schools. S. J. Sutton was a civil rights activist, who in addition to multiple administrative positions, farmed, sold real estate, owned a mattress factory, funeral home and skating rink. All of Percy Sutton's siblings graduated from college. His brothers included G. J. Sutton (the first black elected official in San Antonio) and Oliver Sutton (a judge on the New York Supreme Court).
Sutton was well-grounded in his identity and throughout life was committed to Black empowerment. As early as age 13, he was actively involved in the NAACP. He attended historically-Black Prairie View A&M University, Tuskegee and Hampton. He went on to attend Brooklyn Law School. He served with the Tuskegee Airmen, the famed all-Black unit in the Army Air Forces as an intelligence officer. 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 practice with his brother Oliver.
During the 50s and 60s, Sutton became a well-known lawyer who represented Malcolm X. After Malcolm€s death Sutton and brother Oliver helped sustain his widow Betty Shabazz. Sutton continued to represent the Shabazz family for decades. He was Jesse Jackson's mentor for both his presidential races. For decades, Sutton was a dominant force in Harlem politics. His allies were former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), and former New York Secretary of State Basil Paterson.