Percy Sutton

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Percy Sutton

Template:TOCnestleft Percy Ellis Sutton was a prominent Harlem politician. He was a Tuskegee Airman and intelligence officer during World War II, a man pushed north by the Jim Crow diaspora, a civil rights activist jailed in the prisons of the South, and a lawyer to Malcolm X. He fought to open City University to blacks.

In time, he became a grandee in the most sophisticated and influential black political club in New York City.

And he turned himself into a businessman, some days walking from bank to bank to bank in search of loans. He became a millionaire, owner of what were at one time the city’s two most influential black radio stations, the WBLS hit-maker on FM (107.5) and the intensely, incessantly political WLIB (1190 AM).

With his pencil-thin mustache and slow-burning growl of a voice, he seemed to glory in the daily act of politics, whether shaking hands on 125th Street or telling stories to fifth graders at Public School 166 on the Upper West Side in the late ’60s.[1]

He was the brother of Texas politician G.J. Sutton and Oliver Sutton (judge on the New York Supreme Court).


Born on November 24, 1920 in San Antonio, Texas, Sutton was the youngest of 15 siblings, 12 of whom survived. His father was born free, three years before the Emancipation Proclamation. Both parents were educators and business people. Sutton supported himself with odd jobs while attending three historically black colleges: Prairie View College, Hampton Institute, and Tuskegee Institute. He joined the United States Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet and served as an intelligence officer in World War II with the famous Tuskegee Airmen.[2]


When he was 13, Percy Sutton endured a traumatic experience that drove him inexorably into the fight for racial equality. A police officer approached Sutton as the teen handed out NAACP pamphlets. “N—–, what are you doing out of your neighborhood?” he asked before beating the youth.[3]

New York

After being honorably discharged in 1945, Sutton earned his law degree from Brooklyn Law School and passed the New York bar in 1950. He then returned to the military as a trial judge advocate.

In 1953, Sutton left the military and, with his brother, Oliver Sutton, and George Covington, set up a law partnership. For many years, Percy Sutton was the attorney for Malcolm X. After Malcolm's death, Sutton continued to represent the Shabazz family, when needed, without cost. The Sutton and Covington law firm, always socially conscious, handled many cases without cost.

Sutton was elected President of the New York NAACP in 1961 and participated in, and gave leadership to, many civil rights demonstrations and protests. He helped to integrate the Greyhound Bus Station lunch counter in Montgomery, Alabama in 1961.[4]

The Sutton firm handled the cases of more than 200 defendants arrested in the South during the 1963-64 civil rights marches. Sutton was also elected to two terms as president of the New York office of the NAACP.[5]

Representing marchers

In 1963, Liz Elkind and others had participated in a sit-in at the office of the governor of New York to protest work on state building projects being carried out by companies and unions who would not hire or accept as members Black workers. They were arrested for trespassing and during the week of the March on Washington had been in court. Their lawyers, Percy Sutton and Mark Lane, asked that the trial be suspended for the day of the march so that they could go to Washington. They were astonished that the judge granted their request. In retrospect it may have had to do with Sutton's position and influence in the Democratic Party - he had been Manhattan Borough president, and judges were elected.[6]


Sutton’s early political efforts were not too successful. But after 11 years (1953-1964) of losing elections, Sutton was elected a New York State Assemblyman in 1964.

Sutton quickly emerged as spokesman for its 13 black members. His charisma and eloquence led to his selection as Manhattan borough president in 1966, completing the term of Constance Baker Motley, who was appointed federal judge.

Two years later, Sutton announced a run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Jacob Javits, although he pulled out of the Democratic primary to back Paul O'Dwyer.[7]

As an Assemblyman, Sutton was a major supporter of the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Another initiative of his was the Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (S.E.E.K.) program, which, today, enables thousands of disadvantaged students to gain a college education.

In 1966, the New York City Council chose Sutton to become Manhattan Borough President. Re-elected in his own right by an overwhelming majority, he was, for 11 years (1966-77), the highest elected African American official in the state.[8]


In 1971, Sutton founded the Inner City Broadcasting Corporation, which purchased and developed radio stations WLIB-AM and WBLS-FM; making them the first black-owned stations in New York City. In 1981, Sutton rescued from bankruptcy the world famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem. He created the nationally syndicated television show, “It’s Showtime at the Apollo,” and operated the theater until 1991.

In 1995 and 1996, Sutton represented the United States as a business delegate to the Group of Seven (G-7) Nations meeting on Telecommunications and High Technology in Brussels, and the G-7 developing nations Intelligence Technology Conference in South Africa, respectively.[9]

Malcolm X Commemoration

February 21, 1990

Malcolm X Commemoration. The service was held at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, in New York City.


Although money was a problem at first, initial backing came from Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, Gary, Indiana Mayor Richard Hatcher, Aretha Franklin, Jim Brown, and Ossie Davis.[11]

Texas communist roots

In 2007, Texas Communist Party USA member John Stanford was honored at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio, Texas.[12]

I appreciate what Laura Codina and the Coordinadoras of Fuerza Unida, Petra Mata and Viola Cásares, said, but in all honesty I have to say that whatever I've been able to accomplish has been built on the legacy of Communists here in San Antonio, Texas before me.
In October of last year there was a symposium held at the Tamiment Library of New York University on "James and Esther Jackson, the American Left and the Origins of the Modern Civil Rights Movement." James Jackson was a big influence in my life. At the symposium Percy Sutton, former Manhattan borough president, spoke of his long association with and appreciation of the Jacksons. This began in San Antonio where Sutton grew up in a family of twelve, half of whom became Communists.The six Suttons; Emma Tenayuca and John Inman, both of whom were chairs of the Communist Party of Texas; Hattie Mae Inman, who raised a family and was an inspiration to others while bedridden with five types of cancer; Manuela Soliz Sager and her husband James Sager; Luisa Moreno, and many more -- these are people to whom I'm indebted. I think this honor belongs to them also. And to my wife, Jo, whose support enabled me to be involved in struggles for peace and justice.

Harlem Democratic Party

Former Mayor David Dinkins, former Secretary of State Basil Paterson, former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton and Rep. Charles Rangel

David Dinkins rose through the Democratic Party organization in Harlem and became part of an influential group of African-American politicians that included Percy Sutton, Basil Paterson, Denny Farrell, and Charles Rangel. As an investor, Dinkins was one of fifty African American investors who helped Percy Sutton found Inner City Broadcasting Corporation in 1971.[13]

"Nationalize the black vote"

"What we must do is nationalize the black vote," said Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, who had the second largest constituency of any black elected official in the country (Sen. Edward Brooke, R-Mass., is ahead of him). "We want to exercise power in the Democratic convention next year."

Sutton, at that point had been Manhattan president nearly five years. Sutton chaired the meeting of black politicians organized in Chicago the spring of 1971 by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. That led to speculation of a black presidential candidate in 1971.

In October 1971 Sutton returned to Chicago, for another smokefilled- room meeting plus the third annual Black Expo, the black trade show — cultural fair sponsored by Jackson's Operation Breadbasket, the economic action wing of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Sutton was going to run one of the political seminars that will be a part of Black Expo, which has drawn around 500,000 visitors during its first two years and is aiming at 750,000 this time in its Sept. 29-Oct 3 run.

Sutton, along with Rep. John Conyers, D.-Mich., Cleveland mayor Carl Stokes and Gary, Ind., mayor Richard Hatcher, were to be giving chalk talks on how to register voters and what to do with them when you have them registered, which is get them to vote as a bloc.

"We have come to the conclusion that the economic and political arenas are interdependent," he says. "We know where the power is now. When we talk about blacks in cabinet positions, for instance, we are talking about things like the Securities and Exchange Commission , the Federal Communications Commission, the Treasury.."

The immediate focal point of the black politics movement is black presidential candidate for 1972, a possibility whose remoteness has neither eluded nor discouraged Sutton.

"Whenever anybody asks me if I think a black candidate can win, I look him right in the eye and say, 'Yes,'" he says. "Blacks have been losing for a long time. We don't need any more of it and just getting people to accept the concept that a black candidate is possible is important. . ."

Sutton discounts the possibilities of a third party—for the time being. "It's all right to dream of going out to start a third party —there are some of us who want to do that," he says. "But the practical thing for the 1972 election is for us to work with the Democratic party since the Republicans are still a dead issue for blacks, at least as long as Nixon and Agnew are there."

No specific black candidate has been mentioned (Sutton says he wouldn't run) but the implication is that whose name is put forth and how he does will not be as important as the fact that the effort was made.

"Even when we lose we win," Sutton says, "the failures in our movement have brought about change, and even if we don't have a black candidate next year, give us four years for the honest discussion of the issues we raise in 1972 and things will never be the same."

Many whites, Sutton says, will greet increased black participation in politics with fear or resentment but others will seek coalition—the blacks are actively seeking support from feminists and poor whites.

"There have already been some results in the South," he says. "Somehow, once blacks start voting, they find them selves being called 'Mr.' and 'Sir' and find their street being paved. They might not seem like big things but they are to people who have never had them before." [14]

Anti-Vietnam War

Sutton was among the first voices raised against the Vietnam War, surrendering his delegate’s seat at the 1968 Democratic convention in protest and supporting anti-war candidate George McGovern four years later against incumbent President Richard Nixon.[15]

National Coalition to Fight Inflation and Unemployment

April 16, 1975, Percy Sutton, Manhattan Borough president, was on the Current List of Sponsors of the Communist Party USA front National Coalition to Fight Inflation and Unemployment.[16]

Drastic Cutback in Military Spending

A brochure announcing a National Conference for a Drastic Cutback in Military Spending, to be held on April 5-6, 1975, at the LaSalle Hotel, Chicago, was printed by the National Conference on Military Spending Organizing Committee, of 156 Fifth Avenue, Room 716, NYC, NY, 10010. The printing Bug was that of the CPUSA's Prompt Press, 209.

Sponsors included Percy E. Sutton, Manhattan Borough President.[17]

Jackson "Money man"

The Expert Red, Feb. 1985, page 15

Percy Sutton was reportedly a "money man" during Jesse Jackson's 1984 run for the US Presidency.

1987 Rainbow conference/Board

At the 1987 National Rainbow convention in Raleigh North Carolina, a new board was elected, which included Percy Sutton.

Amsterdam News

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.[18]

The Obama connection

In a televised interview in 2008 on New York's all news cable channel, NY1, 88-year-old Percy Sutton, a former borough president of Manhattan and a credible mayoral candidate in 1977, made some interesting revelations about his links to the young Obama.

Sutton told NY1 reporter Dominic Carter on the show "Inside City Hall": "I was introduced to (Obama) by a friend who was raising money for him." He asked Sutton to write a letter in support of Obama's application to Harvard Law School.

"The friend's name is Dr. Khalid al-Mansour,(formerly Donald Warden, mentor of Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton and his associate, Bobby Seale) from Texas," Sutton said. "He is the principal adviser to one of the world's richest men. He told me about Obama."

Sutton recalled that al-Mansour said that "there is a young man that has applied to Harvard. I know that you have a few friends up there because you used to go up there to speak. Would you please write a letter in support of him?" Sutton did.

According to Newsmax columnist Kenneth Timmerman, "At the time, Percy Sutton, a former lawyer for Malcolm X and a former business partner of al-Mansour, says he (al-Mansour) was raising money for Obama's graduate school education, al-Mansour was representing top members of the Saudi Royal family seeking to do business and exert influence in the United States."

a November 1979 column by TV commentator and respected Chicago Tribune columnist Vernon Jarrett with the title "Will Arabs Back Ties To Blacks With Cash?"

The late Vernon Jarrett was the father-in-law of Valerie Jarrett, who would go on to become what Miele calls "the consigliere of the Obama White House." Mr. Jarrett was a colleague and one of the best friends of Frank Marshall Davis, the former Chicago journalist and lifelong communist who moved to Hawaii in the late 1940s and years later befriended Stanley and Madelyn Dunham and their daughter Stanley Ann, mother of Barack Obama.

Davis is known to have taken an active role in the rearing of young Obama from the age of 10 until he turned 18 and left Hawaii for his first year at Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1979. That was the same year al-Mansour was seeking Arab financial support for students such as Obama.

Vernon Jarrett's column details how al-Mansour told him about a proposal he made to OPEC Secretary-General Rene Ortiz regarding a program to spend "$20 million per year for 10 years to aid 10,000 minority students each year, including blacks, Arabs, Hispanics, Asians and native Americans."

These minority students would then migrate through the political system promoting Palestinian and radical Islamist causes. Al-Mansour told Jarrett that the program had been endorsed by Ortiz and other OPEC administrators.[19]

Symposium on James and Esther Jackson

On October 28, 2006, an event entitled "James and Esther Jackson, the American Left and the Origins of the Modern Civil Rights Movement" was held at the Tamiment Library of New York University. Three panels of academics and activists delivered papers illuminating the lives of the James Jackson and his wife Esther Jackson, their co-workers and the struggles in which they participated that helped shape developments in the United States from the late 1930s to the present. Angela Davis, David Levering Lewis, Percy Sutton, Pete Seeger, Michael Nash, Jean Carey Bond, Michael Anderson, Maurice Jackson and Charlene Mitchell delivered papers and spoke at the event. Sam Webb, Debbie Amis Bell and Daniel Rubin were among the estimated 250 individuals who attended the event.

Percy Sutton, former Manhattan borough president, took the floor and spoke of his long association with and appreciation of the Jacksons. This began in Texas where Sutton grew up in a family of 12, half of whom became Communists.[20]

Mentored Eric Holder

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at the funeral of one of his mentors, civil rights leader Percy Sutton, January 6, 2010 at Riverside Church in New York City. Thousands mourned the legendary civil rights attorney and media owner Percy Sutton who died December 26 at the age of 89.[21]

Speaking to the people gathered in the church's pews, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called Sutton "one of the nation's true heroes."

"I admired, respected and worked for him," Attorney General Eric Holder said of Sutton who died on Dec. 26, 2009 in Manhattan at the age of 89. . "The opportunities given to my generation were paid for by his."[22]

Dream of Equality awardee

Percy Sutton is a past recipient of Asian Americans for Equality's annual Dream of Equality award.[23]



  1. NY Times, Tributes to a Father of Modern Harlem , By MICHAEL POWELL Published: January 6, 2010
  2. Sutton National Visionary
  3. NewsOne, Percy Sutton, Lawyer For Malcolm X, Dies At 89 Dec 27, 2009
  4. Sutton National Visionary
  5. NewsOne, Percy Sutton, Lawyer For Malcolm X, Dies At 89 Dec 27, 2009
  6. PWW "A tribute to thee real life heroes" May 14, 1994, page 11
  7. NewsOne, Percy Sutton, Lawyer For Malcolm X, Dies At 89 Dec 27, 2009
  8. Sutton National Visionary
  9. Sutton National Visionary
  10. [1]
  11. [Jackson PUSHes On". Time. Time Inc. January 3, 1972. Retrieved May 1, 2002]
  12. [2]
  13. Former NYC, Dinkins bio
  14. Times Herald, Blacks Flex Muscles That Can Reshape Elections, Priorities By RALPH NOVAK, Carroll Iowa, Sept 28, 1971, page 9]
  15. NewsOne, Percy Sutton, Lawyer For Malcolm X, Dies At 89 Dec 27, 2009
  16. Congressional Record, "Inflation and Unemployment: The Communist Party's New Drive - Part I", April 16, 1975, Extension of Remarks, pages 10436-1-439, Rep. Larry McDonald (D-GA)
  17. [House Ways & Means Committee hearings on IRS Tax Reform, printed report on Illegal Lobbying written by the Council for Inter-American Security CIS, 1977. The report was submitted in lieu of testimony as CIS learned of a townhall hearing too late to get put on the live witness testimony list and was told to submit the report as their official statement]
  18. NewsOne, Percy Sutton, Lawyer For Malcolm X, Dies At 89 Dec 27, 2009
  19. IBD, Barack Obama—The Radical Mansourian Candidate, Posted 09/24/2012
  20. People's World: James and Esther Jackson: shapers of history, December 15, 2006, by Daniel Rubin (accessed on November 8, 2010)
  21. Eric Holder-Attorney General Of U.S. - Mr. Percy Sutton funeral: filmed by Harlem Heritage Tours
  22. 4 New York, Percy Sutton Remembered in Harlem AG Eric Holder called Sutton "one of the nation's true heroes" By DeMarco Morgan, Thursday, Jan 7, 2010
  23. [AAFE 2013 Banquet Journal, by Douglas Lim at Mar 26, 2013]