Sunday, December 27, 2009

Percy Sutton Passes Away at 89

hat tip-morphus


from the NYTimes:

Percy Sutton, Eminent Black 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 his race’s epochal 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.

Rest of obituary at link above.

RIP, Mr. Sutton.

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