Pioneering Businessman and Politician Percy E. Sutton

Percy E. Sutton never met a challenge too great for his boundless energy and intrepid spirit. The founder of Inner City Broadcasting Corp. died Dec. 26, 2009. He was 89.

Although he was born in San Antonio, on Nov. 24, 1920, it was in New York City where Sutton sowed seeds of success. The youngest child of a former slave, Sutton made his way to New York before joining the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. Following a stint in the Air Force, Sutton and his brother Oliver opened a Harlem law office in 1953, representing slain activist Malcolm X, 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 Rep. Charles Rangel in a statement on his Website.

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. (No. 80 on the BE Industrial/Service companies  list with $50.6 million in revenues), which began with a single radio station, the first to be African American-owned, purchased for $1.9 million. It eventually went on to add stations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Antonio.

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.” He was the longest serving Manhattan borough president, holding the position from 1966 to 1977. Despite a failed 1976 bid for mayor, Sutton still exercised influence in local politics and business.

A fixture on the legendary 125th Street as a young man, Sutton was able to give back to the community when he purchased a financially beleaguered Apollo Theater for $250,000 in 1981. Sutton also headed a group that owned the New York Amsterdam News, the second largest black weekly newspaper in the country.

“[Sutton’s] lifelong 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.

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, be readers named Sutton one of the “10 Most Important Black Business Luminaries” of the 20th century.

“Tuskegee Airman; civil-rights activist; first black Manhattan borough president; be 100s CEO–any one of these designations would make Percy E. Sutton a giant among men,” says black enterprise Publisher Earl G. 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.

This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.