Percy Sutton: Attorney who represented Malcolm X

Tuesday 29 December 2009 01:00

Percy Sutton, who died on 26 December aged 89, was the pioneering civil rights attorney who represented Malcolm X before launching successful careers as a political power broker and media mogul. The son of a former slave, Sutton became a fixture in Harlem following his service with the famed Tuskegee Airmen in the Second World War. His Harlem law office, founded in 1953, represented Malcolm X and the act-ivist's family for several decades.

A consummate politician, Sutton served in the New York State Assembly before taking over as Manhattan borough president in 1966, the state's highest-ranking black elected official. He mounted unsuccessful campaigns for the US Senate and mayor of New York, and served as political mentor for Jesse Jackson's two presidential races.

In 1971 Sutton purchased WLIB-AM, making it the first black-owned radio station in New York City. Among his other projects was his purchase and renovation of the famed Apollo Theater when the Harlem landmark's demise appeared imminent. He also headed a group that owned The Amsterdam News, the second largest black weekly newspaper in the US.

When he was 13, Sutton endured an experience that drove him into the fight for racial equality. A police officer approached him as he handed out NAACP pamphlets. "Nigger, what are you doing out of your neighbourhood?" he asked before beating the youth.

When war came, Sutton's enlistment attempts were rebuffed by Southern white recruiters, though in New York he joined the Tuskegee Airmen. After the war he earned a law degree while working as a post office clerk and subway conductor, served in Air Force intelligence in the Korean War and returned to Harlem in 1953.

In addition to representing Malcolm X until his assassination in 1965, Sutton represented more than 200 defendants in the South during the 1963-64 civil rights marches. He served two terms as president of the New York office of the NAACP.

Sutton also worked as lawyer for Malcolm's widow, Betty Shabazz. He represented her grandson, Malcolm Shabazz, when the 12-year-old was accused of starting a 1997 fire that caused her death.

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