The last time I saw him was at the funeral of his nephew Chuck Sutton. It was at Riverside Church too. Percy was slumped over in a wheelchair, but his eyes were still clear, and his mind was lucid. I bent over and whispered to him, “Mr. Chairman, how good it is to see you, always.” He responded, his voice barely above a whisper, “You’re so special. You’ve come all the way from New Jersey just to be with us. You’re so special.” What a remarkable man, I thought, even in his bereavement and bodily debilitation he was still trying to honor and lift my spirit.
What better way to attempt to sum up the life of this giant than to repeat his words, “You’re special.” That is the way he viewed all of us whatever station in life we held, whatever the complexion, political ideology, or religious creed, we were special. What can we say other than, “Mr. Chairman, what you said about us, you’re the same, and that goes double.”
A paragraph in his obituary captures the man: “A loving family man, a savvy politician, a mentor, a sage, a man who spoke truth to power, a man who gave to others, a man who treated all the same, a consummate orator, a weaver of tales, a man who made you feel special like along lost friend even after a few minutes together, the family patriarch, who made you feel like he was yours and yours alone; a good father, a good husband and an elegant gentle soul. Summing the life of such an iconic person is nearly impossible.”
Thank God for the hope that death does not make a final end. Beyond the grave, there is another reality, and the Bible teaches it is a reality whose beauty is beyond human description. In that new reality, we shall meet again and there will be no more parting of the ways. Goodnight Mr. Chairman, old warrior, beloved friend, I will see you in that new reality one morning soon.
When Old Friends Gathered at the Viewing
It was a bitterly cold morning as we drove across the George Washington Bridge to Riverside Church. I wondered how many funerals I have attended at this world-famous edifice. I remembered the last time was for the funeral of Chuck Sutton, the nephew of Percy Sutton. It was 9 a.m. when we pulled up to the church. About thirty well-wishers had already lined up in front of the church. They were bundled up from head to toe with coats, scarves, blankets, ear-muffins, hats, and only God knows what else. They greeted me with broad smiles and enthusiastic hello's as I walked down the line shaking hands with each one.
When I entered the church, I was led to a large waiting hall next to the gym. From there, I was guided to the chapel. There were three areas in the mammoth church that had been arranged to accommodate the people. As you enter, to the right, was the large hall (to which I already referred), where there were hot beverages served. Next to the hall was the chapel.
There was a huge ornate sanctuary where the ceremony would take place. In the chapel, Percy Sutton lay in a casket opened to the family, VIP's, and close friends. Green wristbands and reception tickets were given to the appropriate persons.
When we entered the chapel, there were only a few people in the rear. When we entered the chapel, there were only a few people in the rear. Among them was another nephew of Percy Sutton. For ten minutes we shared memories. "I was with my uncle the night before he passed. He was still concerned about us." I shared with him how often Percy visited my church. Then I was given a piece of information that answered a question my wife and I had pondered for a long time. I mentioned the occasion of Percy's coming by himself it seemed as though he had been hospitalized. The nephew said, "Yes, he had fallen and broken his hip." I said, "Oh, that's the answer."
For a few minutes, my wife and I had the chairman to ourselves. He was dressed in a navy-blue suit with a slight pinstripe. His tie, clasped at the neck of his white shirt, was a mixture of blue and red dot. He looked as he always did -- well-groomed. His face was peaceful with a faint smile as if to say, "I have done my job, I finished my course, I've kept the faith, and now I go to meet my Maker."
I stared long at the body before me. I wanted to bend over and embrace him as I was accustomed and whisper in his ear what I've always said to him, "Man, we love you. You've done so much for us. We honor you and thank you for everything." I restrained myself and settled for a touch of his tie. I walked back to my seat.
The first VIP to enter was former Mayor David Dinkins preceded by his wife Joyce. He walked down the short aisle, sadly shaking his head. I affectionately greeted him. I always thought we had a special relationship. David and I looked knowingly into the eyes of each other. We could only shake our heads. He whispered as he walked towards the casket, "And then there were three." It was a reference to Congressman Charlie Rangel, Basil Paterson, and himself. They had been called the Gang of Four.
I think that name for the four was first used among African Americans in New York City in 1985. We had formed a Coalition for A Just New York in an attempt to empower New Yorkers, particularly so-called minorities. When the mayoral race commenced, some members had selected Herman Badillo as the mayoral candidate, and Al Vann for Brooklyn Borough President. Many of us knew nothing of this plan. At the 11th hour, we gathered at Astor Place to vote our choices. Herman Farrell who was then-Assemblyman and Manhattan Borough Democratic County Leader threw his hat in the race. After a long and heated debate through the night, the majority of the assemblage voted for Herman Farrell. It fractured the organization and opened wounds that were years in healing. There were those who believed that Herman Farrell's entrance into the race was the doings of Paterson, Dinkins, and Rangel.
They wanted to get even with Badillo for not supporting the mayoral quest of Percy Sutton in 1977. They were called the Harlem Gang of Four. Obviously, the fourth person was Herman Farrell (not Percy Sutton). No such thing had taken place. The mistake was, that is made so often, that a deal had been formulated without the participation of the larger body.
Basil Paterson, longtime Democratic power player and the father of the present governor, face lit up as did mine once we saw each other. It had been a long time since we had seen each other. I think it was during the last Transport Workers Union (T.W.U.) strike in 2006. We met in a hotel room with the TWU President Roger Toussaint, his staff, and advisors to strategize regarding the strike and the city's response.
We exchanged old battles and talked about our children. Basil pulled Clarence Jones into the conversation and rehearsed the history of Sisters Against South African Apartheid (S.A.S.A.A.) He remembered that my wife was bemoaning the treatment of black South Africans and complained that no one was doing anything. I said to my wife, "Why don't you do something?" After a moment of anger, she took up my challenge. Thus, was born S.A.S.A.A. and all of the great work that it did.
Clarence Jones had been Dr. Martin Luther King's attorney and confidante. He was a partner of Percy on various business ventures. I introduced my wife to him.
"This is my hero," I said. "He was with Dr. King from the beginning to the end. He has been a consistent source of great encouragement and inspiration to me."
"You have always been consistent through the years,” Jones responded. “I know how Percy felt about you, and how you felt about him. I know because Percy often talked about you."
To be continued…