Percy Sutton dies at 89; civil rights attorney represented Malcolm X

Times Staff And Wire Reports

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 New York Gov. David Paterson, confirmed that Sutton died Saturday. She did not know the cause. His daughter, Cheryl Sutton, declined to comment when reached by phone at her New York City home.

Percy Sutton obituary: The obituary of civil rights attorney Percy Sutton in the Dec. 28 Section A said his father was born into slavery. Sutton’s father was born free in Texas. —

Sutton founded his Harlem law firm in 1953 and represented Malcolm X and his family for decades. He 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 ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate and mayor of New York, and served as political mentor for the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s two presidential races.

“He never stopped building bridges and laying the groundwork,” Jackson said Sunday. “We are very glad to be the beneficiaries of his work.”

President Obama called Sutton “a true hero” to African Americans across the country.

“His lifelong 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.

Among Sutton’s endeavors was his purchase and renovation of the famed Apollo Theater in 1981 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 chief executive of Apollo Theater Foundation Inc.

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. also bought stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit and San Antonio between 1978 and 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.

Sutton’s father, Samuel, was born into slavery just before the Civil War. He became principal at a segregated San Antonio high school and all 12 of his surviving children attended college.

When Sutton was 13, he endured a traumatic experience that drove him into the fight for racial equality. He was beaten by a police officer as he handed out NAACP pamphlets.

When World War II arrived, Sutton tried to enlist but was rebuffed by Southern white recruiters. He went to New York, where he was accepted and joined the famed Tuskegee Airmen.

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 office with brother Oliver and a third partner, George Covington.

In addition to representing Malcolm X for a decade, the Sutton firm handled more than 200 defendants arrested in the South during the 1963-64 civil rights marches.

After Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965, Sutton worked as the lawyer for his widow, Betty Shabazz. He represented her grandson, 12-year-old Malcolm Shabazz, when the youth was accused of setting a 1997 fire that caused her death.

After the boy took a plea deal, Sutton told The Times that he had seen many sad things during his life, “But this was the saddest.”

Sutton was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1965, and quickly emerged as spokesman for its 13 black members. He became Manhattan borough president in 1966.

Two years later, Sutton announced a run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Jacob Javits, but he later pulled out of the Democratic primary to back Paul O’Dwyer.

Sutton remained in his Manhattan job through 1977, the same year he launched an unsuccessful campaign for mayor that ended with Edward I. Koch defeating six competitors for the Democratic nomination.

In addition to his radio holdings, Sutton also headed a group that owned the Amsterdam News, the second largest black weekly newspaper in the country. The paper was later sold.

The Rev. Al Sharpton said he last visited Sutton in a nursing home Wednesday. He recalled meeting Sutton for the first time at age 12; four years later, Sutton paid for Sharpton’s trip to a national black political convention because the teen couldn’t afford to go.

“He personified the black experience of the 20th century,” Sharpton said. “He started the century where blacks were victims. We ended as victors.”