Civil Rights Lawyer Percy Sutton Dies

Civil Rights lawyer Percy Sutton has died at the age of 89. Over a long career, Sutton served as an attorney for Malcolm X, a mentor to the Rev. Jesse Jackson and to New York Gov. David Paterson. New York City's former Mayor David Dinkins says both he and Congressman Charles Rangel might not have gained their positions of influence had Sutton not paved the way.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Percy Sutton, a powerful politician, lawyer and businessman has died. Sutton was Malcolm X's lawyer and headed a black media empire in New York City. President Obama responded to Percy Sutton's death by calling him a true hero to African-Americans in New York and around the country.

NPR's Margot Adler has this remembrance.

MARGOT ADLER: They were called the gang of four. Percy Sutton, Basil Paterson, the father of the current New York Governor, Congressman Charles Rangel and New York City's former mayor, David Dinkins - four prominent black politicians in New York City.

Dinkins remembers Sutton as an imposing figure, the way he spoke even in his early days as a member of the New York State Assembly. Dinkins says he would rise and take the floor.

Mr. DAVID DINKINS (Former New York City Mayor): And then Percy would say, walk in my shoes, walk in my shoes. I come from the village of Harlem. Let me tell you what it's like there. And when he got through, you could hear a pin drop.

ADLER: Percy Sutton grew up in Texas, the last of 15 children. He stowed away on a train to New York City. He served in the military, became a civil rights lawyer and eventually became the lawyer for Malcolm X and his family. After serving in the New York State Assembly, he became Manhattan borough president in 1966. He was the highest ranking black elected official in the state. He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate and for mayor of New York City.

But the current governor of New York, David Paterson, considers him his mentor. And he was also a mentor for the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Former Mayor Dinkins says he owes him a great debt.

Mr. DINKINS: Because he ran for mayor in 1977 with such class and distinction that nobody laughed at me when I dared try in '89. And it was because of his efforts, largely, that I was able to succeed.

ADLER: And Dinkins even says Charles Rangel would never have run for Congress had it not been for Percy Sutton. In 1971, Sutton purchased WLIB, which became the first black owned radio station in New York City. Sutton was part of a group that purchased the Amsterdam News, New York's leading black newspaper. He also helped save and renovate the legendary Apollo Theater when it fell on hard times.

Michael Aronson of The New York Daily News Editorial Board was involved with a Pulitzer Prize winning series of editorials questioning the close connections between politicians and foundations in the Apollo deal. Four million dollars from Sutton's corporation was supposed to go to the theater and didn't. A lawsuit was eventually settled. Despite all that, Aronson says...

Mr. MICHAEL ARONSON (The New York Daily News Editorial Board): If not for Percy Sutton, the Apollo maybe would've been lost.

ADLER: As for Sutton, the man, the politician, the media entrepreneur, here's Aronson again.

Mr. ARONSON: Very smart, if he was coming of age now, he may be running the world.

ADLER: Sutton was 89 when he died Saturday. The Apollo Theater called Sutton a visionary, one of our greatest statesmen. And New York City is flying its flags at half staff.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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