December 27th, 2009
12:30 PM ET
8 years ago

Malcolm X lawyer, New York pol Percy Sutton dead at 89

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Civil rights attorney Percy Sutton, who represented Malcolm X and became an influential New York politician and broadcaster, has died at age 89, associates said Sunday."]New York (CNN) - Civil rights attorney Percy Sutton, who represented Malcolm X and became an influential New York politician and broadcaster, has died at age 89, associates said Sunday.

As a businessman, Sutton was credited with leading the revitalization of Harlem, including the restoration of the famous Apollo Theater. In a statement issued after Sutton's death Saturday night, New York Gov. David Paterson called the former Manhattan borough president "a friend and mentor."

"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."

And in a statement issued by the White House, President Barack Obama called Sutton a "true hero to African Americans in New York City and around 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.

A native of Texas, Sutton served as an intelligence officer for the famed Tuskegee Airmen during World War II before becoming an attorney. He represented Malcolm X until the onetime Nation of Islam leader's 1965 assassination, and continued to represent his widow, Betty Shabazz, until her death in a 1997 fire. He then defended Shabazz's 12-year-old grandson, who admitted to starting the fatal blaze.

In the 1970s, Sutton was a member of the Harlem circle dubbed the "Gang of Four," which included U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel; Paterson's father Basil, who became New York's secretary of state; and future New York Mayor David Dinkins.

After serving as Manhattan borough president from 1966 to 1977, Sutton became an African-American broadcasting pioneer by purchasing radio stations WLIB and WBLS, launching the first radio chain aimed at black listeners, civil rights leader Al Sharpton said Sunday.

"He was at the forefront of everything you can think of in black America," Sharpton told CNN. "He was the quintessential black American. He pioneered black business, black media and black politics. He opened those doors and he kept them open."

Sutton also reopened the Apollo, the Harlem landmark credited with launching the careers of performers from Ella Fitzgerald to Michael Jackson, "when it was boarded up - when the only ones here were the rats and the roaches," Sharpton told reporters Sunday.

"He was suave and eloquent and debonair," Sharpton said. "He had a coolness about him that I think that we will never see the likes of. There was a grace about Percy Sutton that was hard to describe."

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soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Jose Jiemenez

    Thank you to Jamie Guzzardo for reporting such an important thing with such eloquence that I am sure Malcolm would be proud of it.

    December 27, 2009 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  2. joyfulkira

    I was a little girl when I furst met Mr. Sutton, my Dad was a NYC cab driver and he counted Mr. Sutton as a friend. I remember seeing him in what I thought was his office above the Penny Arcade which was next to the Apollo Theartre. It was most probably the 50's. He was a gentleman and an inspiration to me that we could indeed go to school and work hard to acheive our dreams.
    My Dad was George, tax man and cab driver and my cousin was known as Erskin or Baby Rae who worked in the Penny Arcade. I would love to hear from more folks who lived in Harlem and remember the Apollo and Penny Arcade in the 50's.

    December 27, 2009 02:40 pm at 2:40 pm |
  3. jules sand-perkins

    Percy Sutton needs no accolades from me, but I never knew one person active in–or even interested in–civil rights who didn't admire him.

    December 27, 2009 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |