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.
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 former 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.
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 said. “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.”
President Barack Obama called Sutton “a true hero” to African-Americans across the country.
“His life-long dedication to the fight for civil rights and his career as an entrepreneur and public servant made the rise of countless young African-Americans possible,” Obama said in a statement.
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 from 1978 to 1985.
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.
“The Apollo and its staff stand on the shoulders of Mr. Sutton as the theater continues to flourish,” said Jonelle Procope, president and CEO of Apollo Theater Foundation Inc. “(He) will be greatly missed and will always be an integral part of the Apollo legacy.”
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