Percy Sutton, At 83, Life is just Beginning

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Sutton is a survivor. He literally bears the scars of segregation from abuse he suffered under bigoted police officers in Texas decades ago. While the Tuskegee Airmen are now celebrated as heroes of World War II, when Sutton flew with them, white soldiers were not required to salute them even if they were of higher rank. He has fought both bladder and prostate cancer, coupled with heart problems that he says, “have taken me to the brink of death.�

A stunt pilot, train conductor, military intelligence officer, civil rights attorney, broadcast company owner, TV producer, and borough president.

What do these roles have in common? Percy Sutton has held these positions at one point in his career. Sutton has worked since he was a child and at age 83 he shows no desire to slow down. “I will work as long as I have the mental capacity to work,� he says, in an interview conducted in his cluttered Harlem office, which he affectionately calls “the snake pit.�

Sutton’s story did not begin in Harlem, but that’s where he attained his prominence and legendary stature. In the 1960’s Sutton became known in the community as an attorney who represented social activists. When Malcolm X, then considered a controversial figure by much of the corporate media, needed a lawyer, Sutton was the only man, Black or white, willing to represent him. The two became very close and he served as Malcolm X’s family lawyer before and after his death.

It was also Percy Sutton and his brother Oliver who helped to cover Betty Shabazz’s expenses after the murder of her husband Malcolm X. His civil rights advocacy, his willingness to be arrested and even to be placed in harm’s way for his clients endeared him to the Harlem community.
     
Another chapter in Sutton’s career was his 11 years as Manhattan Borough President from 1966 to 1977. Ken Knuckles, the current President & CEO of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, the federal-state-and City sponsored initiative to revitalize Harlem, recalls Sutton’s support for the community. Sutton, while borough president “was the first one to coin the idea of tourism in upper Manhattan,� Knuckles says. He also believes that, “the seed of the Empowerment Zone idea was planted when he was borough president.�
 
After his time as borough president, Sutton ran for mayor in the 1977 Democratic primary; his opponents included Ed Koch, Mario Cuomo, and then incumbent Abe Beame. Even though he placed fourth, historian Christopher Moore of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture believes that the campaign, “helped pave the way for David Dinkins,� who later became the City’s first African American mayor.
 
Outside of politics Sutton became a leader in the business world, through his ownership of Inner City Broadcasting Company, home to urban music station WBLS and WLIB.  Until recently the stations served as the voice for Black politicos—there was some community outcry when the station recently sold air time to Air America, a liberal format but with fewer programs African Americans identify with. Inner City Broadcasting, which Sutton co-founded, later purchased the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1981 in bankruptcy court.

What followed was a rocky and at times controversial relationship with the theater. Sutton estimates that he lost nearly $31 million through his investment in the Apollo. He says he spent years rebuilding the theater following its decay and misuse. According to his nephew Chuck Sutton, who worked on both the Apollo project and for Sutton’s current company Synematics, “When the Apollo was purchased and rebuilt three quarters of the businesses on 125th Street were boarded up.�

In the late 1990’s, New York State Attorney General Dennis Vacco investigated Sutton and Inner City Broadcasting for allegedly withholding profits amounting in the millions from the popular “It’s ShowTime At The Apollo� TV show, which it had created, from the non-profit Apollo Theater Foundation. The state brought in the Foundation to share ownership costs of the theater. Many critics, including officials in Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration and some newspaper columnists contended that Sutton and long-time friend Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), foundation board member, were involved in financial improprieties.

“There was a misperception that there was a lot of money there, there wasn’t,� says Chuck Sutton, the nephew. He adds that the “ShowTime� TV show actually lost money during a few years of its run. Current State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer eventually cleared Sutton of wrongdoing, but he lost control of the Apollo. “It makes me angry,� Sutton says, recalling the ordeal. The investigation and the bitter contract dispute that followed cast a long shadow over Sutton’s tenure at the Apollo.

Yet, is a survivor. He literally bears the scars of segregation from abuse he suffered under bigoted police officers in Texas decades ago. While the Tuskegee Airmen are now celebrated as heroes of World War II, when Sutton flew with them, white soldiers were not required to salute them even if they were of higher rank. He has fought both bladder and prostate cancer, coupled with heart problems that he says, “have taken me to the brink of death.�

And despite the Apollo episode, which caste a layer of dust on an illustrious career, many of his supporters consider Sutton’s contribution to Harlem as pivotal. “His rescuing of the Apollo helped to save 125th Street. It was the first step to the renewal of 125th Street,� Ken Knuckles says.

Sutton now plays more of a behind the scenes roll in the new Harlem resurgence. For instance he supports organizations which encourage local empowerment and economic development in Harlem such as The Harlem Business Alliance, The Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce and the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone.

The Harlem Business Alliance, which is about to enter its 25th year as advocates of Harlem’s small business community, owes much to Sutton according to its president, Keith McHenry. “Anytime the Harlem Business Alliance is involved in any issue or event, he brings his time, intelligence and all his resources to bare,� McHenry says. “He is dedicated to the advancement of the African American community no matter what the price is to him personally.�

The Alliance informs small businesspeople about investment opportunities, training, and resources to keep local businesses in the community strong. Sutton serves as Chairman Emeritus and is the sponsor of an annual Harlem Business Alliance Award that highlights integrity and social activism.

Sutton could retire comfortably and fade away into history. Yet he now runs a new high-tech company, Synematics Inc., which produces a next generation search engine, software/hardware and security for networks. “I’m in the happiest period of my life,� Sutton says, reflecting on his long journey.
      
“He is one of our leaders who is actively engaged now in passing the torch to another generation of future leaders,� says, McHenry, who himself is 50 but considers Sutton as a mentor. “When I grow up I’ll still be me but I’ll wish I was him. He’s too good to be true.�

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