Percy Ellis Sutton (November 24, 1920 – December 26, 2009) was a prominent black American political and business leader. A civil-rights activist and lawyer, he was also a Freedom Rider and the legal representative for Malcolm X. He was the highest-ranking African-American elected official in New York City when he was Manhattan borough president from 1966 to 1977, the longest tenure at that position. He later became an entrepreneur whose investments included the New York Amsterdam News and the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
Early life, military service, education, and family
Sutton was born in San Antonio, Texas, the last of fifteen children born to Samuel Johnson(“S.J.”) Sutton and Lillian Sutton.
His father, born during the time of slavery and an early civil-rights activist, was one of the first blacks in Bexar County, Texas, and used the initials “S.J.” for fear it would be shortened to Sambo.In addition to being a full-time educator, S.J. farmed, sold real estate and owned a mattress factory, funeral home and skating rink.
All of Sutton’s siblings graduated from college. His brothers included G.J. Sutton, who became the first black elected official in San Antonio, and Oliver Sutton, who became a judge on the New York Supreme Court (Manhattan).
Young Sutton milked cows and rode around San Antonio with his father in the same Studebaker vehicle[clarification needed] that was used for funerals and distributing milk to the poor. He liked to attach strings to cans to pretend to be a radio broadcaster.
At age twelve, he stowed away on a passenger train to New York City, where he slept under a sign on 155th Street in the Harlem neighborhood of the Manhattan borough of the city. Ironically, his oldest sister, Lillian Sutton Taylor who was 20 years his senior, was attending Columbia Teacher’s College at the time. His oldest brother John Sutton, a food scientist who had studied under George Washington Carver, and also in Russia, was living in New York at the time Percy arrived there. His family clearly had resources, a sense of adventure and determination during a time when many African-Americans were extremely limited in options.
His family was committed to civil rights, and he bristled at prejudice. At age thirteen, while passing out leaflets in an all-white neighborhood for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he was beaten by a policeman.
Sutton had joined the Boy Scouts of America and attained the rank of Eagle Scout in 1936 and was recognized with the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award as an adult. Sutton stated that scouting was a key factor in shaping his life.
He and Leatrice Sutton were married in 1943.
He took up stunt-flying on the barnstorming circuit, but gave it up after a friend crashed. Later, during World War II, he served as an intelligence officer with the Tuskegee Airmen – the popular name of a group of African American pilots who flew with distinction during World War II as the 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces. He won combat stars in the Italian and Mediterranean theaters.
Sutton attended[clarification needed] Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, Texas; the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama; and the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia without receiving a degree. He went on to attend Columbia Law School and then Brooklyn Law School in Brooklyn, a borough of New York City.
Legal, business, and political career
During the 1950s and 1960s, Sutton became one of America’s best-known lawyers.He represented many controversial figures, such as Malcolm X. After the murder of Malcolm X in 1965, Sutton and his brother Oliver helped to cover the expenses of his widow, Betty Shabazz. Sutton’s civil-rights advocacy took him even further in the minds of many. Being jailed with Stokely Carmichael and other activists endeared him to the Harlem community and showed many that he was willing to place himself in harm’s way for his client’s sake.[clarification needed]
Sutton was a longtime leader in Harlem politics, and was a leader of the Harlem Clubhouse, also known as the “Gang of Four“. The Clubhouse has dominated Democratic politics in Harlem since the 1960s. His allies in running the Clubhouse were New York City Mayor David Dinkins, U.S. Representative Charles Rangel, and New York Secretary of State Basil Paterson – whose son, David Paterson, became New York Governor in 2008. He also was a life member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.
He served in the New York Assembly in 1965–1966. He ran for borough president of Manhattan in 1965, and won with 80% of the vote. He served in that post until 1977, when he ran for the Democratic nomination for New York City Mayor against Bella Abzug, a former U.S. Representative; U.S. Representative Herman Badillo; incumbent New York City Mayor Abraham Beame; New York Secretary of State Mario Cuomo; and U.S. Representative Ed Koch; Koch won the nomination and mayoralty.
He initiated the revitalization of the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He also produced It’s Showtime at the Apollo, a syndicated, music television show first broadcast on September 12, 1987. Sutton is buried at the Gates of Heaven Memorial Cemetery in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas.