- NAME: Percy Sutton
- OCCUPATION: Civil Rights Activist, Lawyer
- BIRTH DATE: November 24, 1920
- DEATH DATE: December 26, 2009
- Did You Know?: With Hal Jackson, Percy Sutton acquired WLIB-AM and WBLS-FM, New York City's first African American-owned and -operated radio stations.
- EDUCATION: Prairie View A&M University, Tuskegee Institute, Hampton Institute, Columbia Law School, Brooklyn Law School
- PLACE OF BIRTH: San Antonio, Texas
- PLACE OF DEATH: New York, New York
- Full Name: Percy Ellis Sutton
- AKA: Percy Sutton
Best Known For
Percy Sutton was a Freedom Rider, civil rights activist and prominent African-American lawyer best known for representing Malcolm X.
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Born in Texas in 1920, Percy Sutton became one of America's best-known lawyers in the 1950s and '60s, representing controversial figures such as Malcolm X. He became the highest-ranking African-American elected official in New York City in 1966, when he won election as president of the city's Manhattan borough, serving until 1977. Sutton was particularly influential as the leader of the Harlem Clubhouse, which dominated 1960s Harlem politics.
Born on November 24, 1920, in San Antonio, Texas, Percy Ellis Sutton was the youngest of 15 children born to Samuel Johnson Sutton and Lillian Sutton. Samuel was an early civil rights activist who farmed, sold real estate and owned a mattress factory, a funeral home and a skating rink—all in addition to being a full-time principal at the all-black Phyllis Wheatley High School. Lillian was also a full-time educator.
The couple raised their family on a farm in Prairie View, Texas. All the children were given chores on the farm, in addition to their studies. Percy was responsible for milking the cows, often accompanying his father on trips to deliver milk to the poor. He also helped his father in his strides toward equality, helping to educate others about racism. His efforts made him the target of policeman and, at the age of 13, he was beaten by members of the local law enforcement for passing out NAACP brochures in an all-white neighborhood. Instead of discouraging him, this incident would later fuel his desire to earn equality for all races.
Thanks to his parents' emphasis on hard work and education, Percy and all of his siblings went on to earn college degrees. As each of the older siblings established themselves professionally, they would help their younger siblings financially so that they could afford school. Although Percy attended three different prestigious universities—Prairie View Agricultural and Mechanical College, the Tuskegee Institute and the Hampton Institute—he didn't complete his college degree. Instead, he traveled to New York at the beginning of World War II to enlist in the U.S. Army.
While serving in the armed forces, Percy Sutton became an intelligence officer with the famous all-black Tuskegee Airmen, earning several combat honors. After completing his service time, Sutton was discharged honorably as a captain. After leaving the military, Sutton was determined to finish his education. He enrolled in Columbia University's law program with the help of the G.I. bill and his previous college grades.
Sutton eventually transferred to Brooklyn Law School in order to support himself financially. In addition to his rigorous class schedule, he was employed at the post office from 4 p.m. until midnight, then worked as a subway conductor until 8:30 a.m. He then attended his law classes at 9:30 a.m. Sutton continued this hectic schedule until graduation. Shortly after law school, Sutton—who mistakenly believed he'd failed the bar exam—enlisted in the Air Force.
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