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Issue: March/April 2010
Percy E. Sutton: A Titan Worthy of Emulation
By: Renita Burns
Percy E. Sutton never met a challenge too great for his boundless energy and intrepid spirit. The founder of Inner City Broadcasting Corp. (which operated the first African American-owned radio station), a Tuskegee Airman, and lawyer, Sutton’s shrewd business sense and iron will made him a force to be reckoned with. The pioneering figure died Saturday (December 25, 2009). He was 89.

Although he was a San Antonio, Texas native, it was in New York City where Sutton sowed seeds of success cultivated with integrity and indomitable will. The youngest son of a former slave, Sutton made his way to New York before joining the Tuskegee Airmen as an intelligence officer in World War II after being rejected by white Southern recruiters in his hometown. Following a stint in the Air Force, Sutton and his brother Oliver opened a Harlem law office in 1953. His firm represented slain activist Malcolm X, his wife, Betty Shabazz, and the Black Panthers, among others. “At a time when few African Americans went into the law, Sutton opened up his own practice that aggressively defended civil and human rights activists in New York and elsewhere around the country,” says friend, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel.

But it was his business acumen and foray into New York City politics that burnished Sutton's legacy. In 1972, he and his brother founded New York-based Inner City Broadcasting Corp. (ICBC) (No. 80 Black Enterprise Industrial/Service 100 with revenues of $50.6 million), which began with a single radio station, WLIB-AM. With 50 original shareholders, including Jesse Jackson, future New York City Mayor David Dinkins, and Betty Shabazz, the group purchased the station for $1.9 million, with the Suttons owning more than 51% of the company. It eventually went on to add WBLS-FM, one of New York City’s top ranked radio stations, along with stations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Antonio. “The people who initially invested in Inner City Broadcasting really did not expect us to make money on an AM daytime radio station in Harlem, but they were really interested in getting a piece of the media that had impact on the community,” Sutton’s son Pierre told Black Enterprise magazine in 1989. Pierre assumed chairmanship of ICBC in 1991. In the 1970s, Sutton, who served in the New York State Assembly, was a member of a group of black politicians from Harlem dubbed the "Gang of Four," which included Rep. Rangel; Gov. David Paterson's father Basil, who became New York's secretary of state; and Dinkins. He was the longest serving Manhattan borough president holding the position from 1966 to 1977. Despite a failed 1976 bid for a mayoral seat, Sutton still exercised influence in local politics and business.

“As Borough President, Sutton advocated for and implemented programs that specifically targeted the City's most vulnerable populations,” said Arva Rice, president and CEO of the New York Urban League. A fixture on the legendary 125th St. as a young man, Sutton was able to give back to the community that helped shape him when he purchased a financially beleaguered Apollo Theater for $250,000 in 1981. With the acquisition, ICBC also acquired or launched a magazine, record and publishing companies, an artist management company, and several other related entities, including a syndicated television show, "Showtime at the Apollo." Along with the purchase Sutton secured investors for an $18 million renovation of the theater. In addition to his radio holdings, Sutton also headed a group that owned The Amsterdam News, the second largest black weekly newspaper in the country. The paper was later sold. “[Sutton’s] life-long dedication to the fight for civil rights and his career as an entrepreneur and public servant made the rise of countless young African Americans possible,” remarked President Barack Obama.

Sutton’s achievements mark a staunch dedication to education instilled in him and his siblings by his father, Samuel, who was born into slavery just before the Civil War. Samuel went on to become a high school principal. Sutton, the youngest of 15 children, was born in San Antonio on Nov. 24, 1920. Samuel made sure that all 12 of his surviving children went on to attend college. Black Enterprise recognized Sutton with the Arthur G. Gaston Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000, one of many awards, including the 1987 NAACP Spingarn Medal, to his credit. Also in 2000, Black Enterprise readers named Sutton one of the "10 Most Important Black Business Luminaries" of the 20th century.

"Tuskegee Airman. Civil-rights activist. Attorney for the family of Malcolm X. First black (and longest-serving) Manhattan Borough President. BE 100s CEO and founder of Inner City Broadcasting Corp., one of America’s largest black-owned companies. Key strategist for the ground-breaking presidential campaigns of Rev. Jesse Jackson. Any one of these designations would make Percy L. Sutton, the youngest son of a former slave, a giant among men," says Black Enterprise Publisher Earl Graves. "The combination of these, only a sampling of his achievements, stamps Sutton as a true titan. He lived a life full to overflowing, setting a standard truly worthy of emulation, and I am blessed and proud to have been his friend." Sutton is survived by his wife, Leatrice; his son Pierre, and daughter Cheryl.