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.