EXPIRED: 12/26/09 – Percy Sutton, 89, was a civil rights activist, a lawyer, an entrepreneur and the last of 15 children to parents who were born into slavery just before the Civil War in San Antonio, Texas.
At the age of 13, Sutton endured a traumatic experience that drove him to become a civil rights attorney representing Malcolm X and more than 200 defendants who were arrested in the South during the 1963-1964 civil rights marches. While handing out NAACP pamphlets he was approached by a white police officer who said to him, “Nigger, what are you doing out of your neighborhood?” before beating the teen Sutton up. It changed Sutton’s life.
Before becoming a lawyer, Sutton joined the Tuskegee Airmen and after WWII he earned his law degree in NY while working as a post office clerk and a subway conductor.
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 1963-64 civil rights marches. Sutton was also elected to two terms as president of the New York office of the NAACP.
After Malcolm’s assassination, Sutton worked as lawyer for Malcolm’s 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.
In 1965 he was elected to the state Legislature office and in 1966 after Constance Baker Motley was pointed federal judge he completed her term as Manhattan borough president. In the 70’s he ran, unsuccessfully, against Ed Koch for NYC Mayor.
In 1971 he purchased WLIB-AM with his brother, Oliver making it the first black-owned radio station in NYC and a few years later he purchased WBLS-FM, then stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit and San Antonio. He also briefly owned the Amsterdam News.
In 1981 he purchased the Apollo Theater for $250,000 and renovated it when the Harlem landmark’s demise appeared imminent. He followed that with producing the show, Showtime at the Apollo.
Many say that Harlem’s resurgence started with Sutton.