Monday, December 28, 2009

As a mogul, politican, trailblazer, war hero, Percy Sutton was a man of ambition

Errol Louis

Monday, December 28th 2009, 4:00 AM

Percy Sutton once offered Daily News columnist Errol Louis unique career advice: Whenever you take a job, start planning for the next one.
Percy Sutton once offered Daily News columnist Errol Louis unique career advice: Whenever you take a job, start planning for the next one.

The early newspaper obituary descriptions of Percy Sutton - politician, civil rights lawyer, media mogul - barely scratch the surface of what Sutton meant to Harlem and America.

He was uniquely gifted and successful, but also part of a greatest generation of black leadership that came of age during the darkest days of Jim Crow segregation and tenaciously set about the business of dismantling it.

The fortysomething black professionals of my generation have spent a fair amount of time trying to crack the code of this spectacularly talented cohort, whose story has never been fully told. Even growing up near and around them, Sutton and his contemporaries seemed a legion of supermen and women whose drive, daring and achievement could be admired but never equaled.

The long, horrific shadow of legal segregation was still firmly in place when Sutton was born 89 years ago - his father was a slave, for God's sake - but that didn't stop a wave of men and women from becoming doctors, dentists, judges and businessmen.

And bona fide war heroes. Sutton was one of the legendary Tuskeegee Airmen, who flew more than 1,500 combat missions during World War II. Then he set up shop as one of only a handful of black lawyers serving Harlem in the 1960s.

I remember the pride and hushed admiration in my mother's voice when she told me some obscure bit of routine family business had been handled by Sutton, who was Malcolm X's lawyer. It was a big deal.

Many years later, it was a big deal for me to sit next to Sutton at a college lecture in commemoration of the late Andy Cooper, another Sutton contemporary who founded and published the now-defunct City Sun black newspaper.

In the few minutes before the program started, I got a chance to chat with Sutton. Upon telling him I had recently been named a columnist and Editorial Board member of the Daily News, he responded with the same crisp, commanding voice I'd heard on TV so often.

Sutton: "Excellent. So when are you planning to move [on]?"

Me: "Well, umm ..."

Sutton: "I salute your achievement. But whenever you take a job, you should be planning for the next one."

Point taken.

Sutton himself was a man of restless, driving ambition. In a feat of near-suicidal work ethic, he worked two full-time jobs - one on the overnight shift - while attending Brooklyn Law School. It was something I remembered while doing my own slog through the law school's evening division after full days at the newspaper.

After settling on politics as a career, Sutton launched a series of failed campaigns before winning an Assembly seat, moving up to Manhattan borough president and then launching a bid for mayor in 1977. Along the way, he also helped plan and stage the audacious political coup that unseated Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the legendary Harlem congressman, and installed Charlie Rangel.

Ex-Mayor David Dinkins, a close friend of Sutton's, has always maintained that Sutton's unsuccessful run for mayor in 1977 set the stage for his own historic election 12 years later as New York's first black mayor. What Sutton established, says Dinkins, was a level of credibility and classiness that made the notion of a black mayor possible.

AND WHEN Sutton decided he'd had enough of politics, he made history again as a media operator, with flagship station WBLS-FM and its star jock, Frankie Crocker, winning monster ratings and defining urban radio nationwide. Later forays into cable television and renovation of the fabled Apollo Theater brought controversy along with riches.

But to his credit, Sutton remained true to Harlem, never leaving for a wealthy suburb.

You'd see him moving here and there, always dressed to the nines, ready with a smile and a wave and the look of a man looking for the next adventure.

His generation's excellence was born of social and cultural pressures that many people can scarcely imagine or remember. It acted the way geologic heat and pressure convert coal into diamonds.

That is how Sutton will be remembered uptown: as a leader, a legend and a shining jewel of a man.

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