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Percy Sutton


Percy Sutton

Percy Sutton
Percy Sutton, in his 1961 Freedom Rider arrest mugshot.
21st Manhattan Borough President
In office
September 13, 1966 – December 31, 1977
Preceded by Constance Baker Motley
Succeeded by Andrew Stein
Personal details
Born Percy Ellis Sutton
(1920-11-24)November 24, 1920
San Antonio, Texas, USA
Died December 26, 2009(2009-12-26) (aged 89)
New York City, New York, USA
Resting place Gates of Heaven Memorial Cemetery in San Antonio
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Leatrice Sutton (1943–2009, his death)
Alma mater Prairie View A&M University
Tuskegee Institute
Hampton Institute
Columbia Law School
Brooklyn Law School
Occupation Civil-rights activist, entrepreneur, lawyer[1]
Military service
Service/branch United States Army Air Corps
Years of service 1941-1945
Rank Captain

World War II

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.[1]


  • Early life, military service, education, and family 1
  • Legal, business, and political career 2
  • Awards and honors 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5

Early life, military service, education, and family

Sutton was born in San Antonio, Texas, the youngest of fifteen children born to Samuel Johnson ("S.J.") Sutton and his wife, Lillian.

His father, 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.[2]

Sutton's siblings included G. J. Sutton, who became the first black elected official in San Antonio,[3] and Oliver Sutton, a judge on the New York Supreme Court.

At age twelve, Percy stowed away on a passenger train to New York City, where he slept under a sign on 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.

He 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.[4] Percy and Leatrice Sutton married in 1943. He later took up stunt-flying on the barnstorming circuit, but gave it up after a friend crashed.

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 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.

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.

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 was a member of the New York State Assembly in 1965 and 1966. On September 13, 1966, he was elected Borough President of Manhattan, to fill the vacancy caused by the appointment of Constance Baker Motley to the federal bench.[5] 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 the general election.

In his race for mayor, Sutton surprised his liberal political base when he turned temporarily to the right. He assailed the rising crime rate, as he termed the situation "a city turned sick with the fear of crime". He attacked criminals for "cheating, stealing, and driving away our families and our jobs."[6]

In 1971, Sutton cofounded the Inner City Broadcasting Corporation which purchased New York City's WLIB-AM, the city's first African-American-owned radio station.[7]

Sutton served in the New York City Police Department Auxiliary Police during the late 1970s.[8]

Sutton produced It's Showtime at the Apollo, a syndicated, music television show first broadcast on September 12, 1987.

Awards and honors

In 1987, Sutton was awarded the Spingarn Medal, an award presented annually by the NAACP for outstanding achievement by an African American.


  1. ^ a b Salazar, Cristian (December 27, 2009). "Percy Sutton, Attorney for Malcolm X, Dies at 89 — Percy Sutton, Attorney for Malcolm X and Pioneering Media Mogul, Dies at 89". The Associated Press (via ABC News). Accessed December 27, 2009.
  2. ^ , Monday, December 28, 2009.The New York TimesMartin, Douglas. "Percy E. Sutton, Political Trailblazer, Dies at 89,"
  3. ^ [2] Handbook of Texas Online
  4. ^ Townley, Alvin (2006). Legacy of Honor: The Values and Influence of America's Eagle Scouts. New York City:  
  5. ^ Sutton Elected Manhattan Borough President in the New York Times on September 14, 1966 (subscription required)
  6. ^ Dominic Sandbroook, Mad as Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right (New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011, p. 64); ISBN 9781400042623
  7. ^ , Monday, December 28, 2009.The New York TimesFahim, Kareem & Solie, Stacey. "In Harlem, Reflections on the Life of Percy Sutton,"
  8. ^ article on SuttonNew York Magazine,

The African American Registry

External links

  • Percy Sutton at the Internet Movie Database
  • , Sunday, December 27, 2009.New York Amsterdam NewsBoyd, Herb. "'Mr. Chairman,' Percy Ellis Sutton, passes at 89,"
  • One of Texas Finest
  • Synematics, Inc
  • Percy Sutton's oral history video excerpts at The National Visionary Leadership Project
New York Assembly
Preceded by
Lloyd E. Dickens
New York State Assembly
New York County, 11th District

Succeeded by
district abolished
Preceded by
new district
New York State Assembly
77th District

Succeeded by
Robert García
Political offices
Preceded by
Constance Baker Motley
Borough President of Manhattan
Succeeded by
Andrew Stein
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