When I was youth director of N.Y.’s Operation Breadbasket a few years later, he literally became a mentor and guardian. This fierce leader paid for me to go to the national Black political convention in Indiana in 1972 when I could not afford to do so, and continued to support me both spiritually and physically throughout the roller coaster ride of my civil rights career. He was a dear friend, adviser, role model and sheer visionary for all Black folks. He was Percy Sutton, one of the last greats.
I received a call on Dec. 23 from Gov. David Paterson of N.Y. informing me that his father Basil, Rep. Charles Rangel and former Mayor David Dinkins visited Percy that morning and wanted both him and me to do the same as the legendary activist was very ill. We immediately went to see the man who had aided both of our careers in a multitude of ways. Even though Percy’s eyes were frail as we gathered, they were still as alert as the days when he handed out NAACP flyers in all-White neighborhoods. Together, we all said a prayer, and three nights later, our Percy passed.
Born the son of slave, Percy died a media mogul and political power broker. The last child in a family of 15 kids, he left Texas at the age of 12 for N.Y. where his life’s work began to take root after being beaten up by a policeman. An avid fighter for justice, he attended and graduated Brooklyn Law School while working two jobs. Percy also served as an intelligence officer with the famous Tuskegee Airmen, the all-Black unit of the Air Force. He later represented Malcolm X, and members of his family as a civil rights attorney, and went on to hold a remarkable political career as the highest-ranking Black official in N.Y. as borough president.
Percy was, in essence, the quintessential African-American. In addition to his accolades of political achievement, he exemplified business acumen that we can only hope to one day emulate. He established the first Black radio network, Inner City Broadcasting, whose flagship station, WBLS became number one in its market, while station WLIB helped elect David Dinkins for N.Y.C. mayor.
He owned the first Black national TV programs, and also took some $250,000 of his own money to purchase—and in effect save—the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. A true visionary, Percy saw the revitalization of the Apollo as a way to boost the local economy and bring tourism back uptown. I remember in fact, sitting in a limo one night with James Brown after a show at the Apollo, and he himself remarked that if it weren’t for Percy, nobody would be there, and that everyone would be eternally grateful for his dedication to Harlem and to Black folks everywhere. For if Percy did not save the Apollo, the Harlem Renaissance would have never transpired.
Percy Sutton was a multi-dimensional embodiment of all that we said, and all that we stood for as Black people. There has yet to be an African-American leader who has led in more areas and became number one at the same time like my mentor and confidant Percy. He was with me during my greatest moments like when I ran for president and spoke in front of the Democratic National Convention. And he was with me during some of my most challenging times, like when the courts fined me $65,000 following the Tawana Brawley incident. It was Percy who, unbeknownst to me, raised the money and paid this large fine.
Percy always believed in nurturing the next generation. If he had succeeded in just one area, he would have been great; he succeeded in a number of areas, and is therefore above and beyond great. There are those in the generations behind me that may only know him by some remote mentioning of his name, but every time a Black person walks into an executive office, that’s Percy. Every time we walk into a Black radio station, that’s Percy. Every time we walk into a Black cable station, that’s Percy. And when the lights are on at the Apollo, that’s Percy. The Bible says you shall know them by their fruits, long after his name is not remembered. Percy’s fruits will undoubtedly be tasted by generations to come.
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