The man once nicknamed the “Prince of Harlem,” Percy Sutton, has died. Sutton represented legendary civil rights leader, Malcolm X’s until his assassination in 1965. The cause of Sutton’s death is not known at this time and his daughter, Cheryl Sutton, has declined comment. Sutton was 89-years-old.
In 1942, at the age of 21, Sutton joined the Army Air Corps where he served as an Intelligence officer during WWII. During the Yugoslav Front, Sutton was captured and held in captivity for a day after he attempted to rescue American Pilots that had been shot down behind enemy lines. His efforts earned him combat stars.
Sutton, born November 24, 1920 in San Antonio, Texas was the youngest of 15 children and the son of a slave. He was once a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
Among some of his other noted achievements was his election to the New York State Assembly in 1964, serving three terms as the Manhattan Borough President in 1965, his tenure as the President of the New York Chapter of the NAACP where he served for two terms and his role as political mentor to the Reverend Jesse Jackson during both his presidential races.
Though not a native New Yorker, Sutton came to revere the Manhattan community in 1943 as a serviceman on leave with fellow intelligence officer, Clark Gable (yes, the actor). It was there, in Harlem, that Sutton met and married his wife, Leatrice four months after meeting her.
In 1945, he returned from WWII and moved to New York City where he enrolled in law school, graduated and reentered the military as a lawyer in the Air Force. He left military life for the last time in 1953.
Sutton’s love and adoration for Harlem was never more evident than when he stepped up to save the famed Apollo Theater from bankruptcy in 1980 and campaigning for the theater’s revitalization. He made it clear that his venture was not simply about money, but more so out of love and for the people of Harlem.
“I bought it (the Apollo) for a quarter of a million dollars and lost $31 million,” said Sutton.
“When I look out on the street I see all of the activity…there is a great comfort in knowing that I started it. This street was dead and I was very alive.”
Sutton also produced “It’s Showtime at The Apollo” which generated much needed revenue and helped launch the careers of young artists such as Lauren Hill of the Fugees.
At the age of 13, a traumatic experience spearheaded Sutton’s desire to fight racial injustice. While handing out NAACP pamphlets in town, Sutton was approached by a police officer who shouted,’‘N—–, what are you doing out of your neighborhood,” then began beating a young Sutton.
Despite this, Sutton once said, “In spite of the injuries that have been inflicted on me in my life, I manage to like people. It makes me feel just a little superior to other people who can’t do that, people who are angry all of the time, who are bitter and hurt. I have been hurt but I am not hurt. I don’t live a life of hurt.”
As a civil rights attorney, Sutton’s firm defended more than 200 people arrested in the South during the upheaval of the 1963-1964 civil rights marches. during the 1960s and handled the cases of more than 200 defendants arrested in the South during the 1963-64 civil rights marches.
After the assassination of Malcolm X, Sutton continued to represent his widow, Betty Shabazz and in 1997 he represented the 12-year-old grandson of Malcolm X, Malcolm Shabazz, when he was charged with setting a fire that killed Betty.
In a statement released Saturday night, New York Governor David Paterson called Sutton a mentor and ”one of this nation’s most influential African-American leaders.”
”Percy was fiercely loyal, compassionate and a truly kind soul,” Paterson’s statement read. ”He will be missed but his legacy lives on through the next generations of African-Americans he inspired to pursue and fulfill their own dreams and ambitions.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton is said to have a news conference planned to talk about Sutton’s life and legacy sometime today. Check theblackurbantimes for future updates to this story.