NEW YORK - Percy Sutton, the pioneering civil-rights attorney who represented Malcolm X before launching successful careers as a political power broker and media mogul, has died. He was 89.
Marissa Shorenstein, a spokeswoman for Gov. David Paterson, confirmed that Sutton died Saturday. She did not know the cause. The governor called Sutton a mentor and "one of New York's and this nation's most influential African-American leaders."
The son of a former slave, Percy Sutton became a fixture on 125th Street in Harlem after moving to New York City following his service with the famed Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. His Harlem law office, founded in 1953, represented Malcolm X and the slain activist's family for decades.
The consummate politician, Sutton served in the New York State Assembly before taking over as Manhattan borough president in 1966, becoming the highest-ranking black elected official in the state.
Sutton also mounted unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. Senate and mayor of New York, and served as political mentor for the Rev. Jesse Jackson's two presidential races.
President Obama called Sutton "a true hero" to African-Americans across the country.
"His 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," Obama said in a statement.
In 1971, with his brother Oliver, Sutton bought WLIB-AM, making it the first black-owned radio station in New York City. His Inner City Broadcasting Corp. eventually picked up WBLS-FM, which reigned for years as New York's top-rated radio station, before buying stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit and San Antonio between 1978-85.
The Texas purchase marked a homecoming for the suave and sophisticated Sutton, born in San Antonio on Nov. 24, 1920, the youngest of 15 children.
Sutton's father, Samuel, was born into slavery just before the Civil War. The elder Sutton became principal at a segregated San Antonio high school, and he made education a family priority: All 12 of his surviving children attended college.
When he was 13, Percy Sutton endured a traumatic experience that drove him inexorably into the fight for racial equality. A police officer approached Sutton as the teen handed out NAACP pamphlets. "N - - - - -, what are you doing out of your neighborhood?" he asked before beating the youth.
When World War II arrived, Sutton joined the Tuskegee Airmen.
After the war, Sutton earned a law degree in New York while working as a post-office clerk and a subway conductor. He served again as an Air Force intelligence officer during the Korean War before returning to Harlem in 1953 and establishing his law office with brother Oliver and a third partner, George Covington.
In addition to representing Malcolm X for a decade until his 1965 assassination, the Sutton firm handled the cases of more than 200 defendants arrested in the South during the 1963-64 civil-rights marches. Sutton was also elected to two terms as president of the New York office of the NAACP.
After Malcolm X's assassination, Sutton worked as lawyer for his widow, Betty Shabazz. He represented her grandson, 12-year-old Malcolm Shabazz, when the youth was accused of setting a 1997 fire that caused her death.
Sutton was elected to the state Legislature in 1965, and quickly emerged as spokesman for its 13 black members. His charisma and eloquence led to his selection as Manhattan borough president in 1966, completing the term of Constance Baker Motley, who was appointed federal judge. He kept the job until 1977.
Sutton was among the first voices raised against the Vietnam War, surrendering his delegate's seat at the 1968 Democratic convention in protest and supporting anti-war candidate George McGovern four years later against incumbent President Richard Nixon.
In addition to his radio holdings, Sutton also headed a group that for a time owned the Amsterdam News, the second largest black weekly newspaper in the country.
Sutton's devotion to Harlem and its people was rarely more evident than when he spent $250,000 to purchase the shuttered Apollo Theater in 1981. The Apollo turned 70 in 2004, a milestone that was unthinkable until Sutton stepped in to save the landmark.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced yesterday that flags on city buildings would be lowered in Sutton's honor.