Percy E. Sutton: A Titan Worthy of Emulation

Memorial service for iconic business leader to be held 11 a.m., Wednesday, Jan. 6, at Manhattan's Riverside Church

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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. He was 89. Sutton’s family will hold his memorial service Wednesday, January 6, 11:00 a.m. at Riverside Church in Manhattan.

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.

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  • Aloha My Brothers & Sisters,

    This is a Sad Moment in our time for we lost another Giant, Sir Percy, a wonderful Brother with such a rich record of action and accomplishment for us all. When I ran into Sir Percy several years ago at a function in Harlem, I mentioned our great loss of a contemporary of his: Dick Campbell [(deceased in 1994), founder of Sickle Cell Fndtn. of Greater NY, who was my Mentor in Harlem, USA]. He replied “Dick was a Giant, and always will be” that which is my message here. Our love to his Family for this devasting lost. Giants like him would only want us to carry on and continue to achieve necessary action(s) and achievment(s).

    George Rainey, Jr.
    Nubian Pageant Systems
    Fmr. Hawaii State Commissioner – Dept. Commerce & Consumer Affairs

    • Richard Grupenhoff


      Shortly before his death I conducted a number of interviews with Dick Campbell about his life story. Indeed, i was one of his pall bearers at his funeral in 1994. A good man, sensitive and vital even at 91. He was a good friend of Lorenzo Tucker, black mmovie idol of Race Movies. I wrote Tucker’s bography, “TheBlack Valentino: the Stage and Screen Career of Lorenzo Tucker.”

  • Jeff Milligan

    What an Inspiration and a Giant of a man. He set the bar real high and we as a people and me as an individual have something to strive for as an example of what and how we should live our life. Percy Sutton thank you.
    Jeff Milligan
    We Buy Any House, LLC
    LIFT, Inc.
    Atlanta, GA

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