Notable deaths elsewhere

December 28, 2009

PERCY SUTTON, 89

Lawyer for Malcolm X

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, died Saturday. He was 89.

The son of a slave, Percy Sutton became a fixture on 125th Street in Harlem after moving to New York City following his service with the 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, Mr. 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.

Mr. Sutton also mounted unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. Senate and mayor of New York, and served as political mentor for the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's two presidential races.

Mr. Jackson recalled Mr. Sutton's talking about electing a black president as early as 1972. Mr. Sutton was influential in getting his 1984 campaign going, he said.

"He never stopped building bridges and laying the groundwork," Mr. Jackson said.

In a statement released Saturday night, Gov. David Paterson called Mr. Sutton a mentor and "one of New York's and this nation's most influential African-American leaders."

President Barack Obama called Mr. 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," Mr. Obama said in a statement.

In 1971, with his brother Oliver, Mr. 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 between 1978 and 1985.

Among Mr. Sutton's other endeavors was his purchase and renovation of the famed Apollo Theater when the Harlem landmark's demise appeared imminent.

Mr. Sutton's father, Samuel, was born into slavery just before the Civil War. The elder Sutton became principal at a segregated San Antonio high school, and he made education a family priority: All 12 of his surviving children attended college.

In addition to representing Malcolm X for a decade until his 1965 assassination, the Sutton firm handled the cases of more than 200 defendants arrested in the South during the 1963-1964 civil rights marches. Mr. Sutton was also elected to two terms as president of the New York NAACP.

Mr. Sutton "retired" in 1991, but his work as an adviser, mentor and confidant to politicians and businessmen never abated. He was among a group of American businessmen selected during the Clinton administration to attend meetings with the Group of Seven (G-7) Nations in 1995-1996.

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