I want to cite some of the more prominent politicos of the times. I do this for two reasons:
I want to continue emphasizing my church’s deep involvement in the movement, especially the political movement.
Secondly, several of the persons that I’m going to write about are deceased. In my room to be published, “The Passing of the Giants of the Human Spirit”, I write about them. So, I get a chance to promote my book.
The first person that I am going to write about is Percy Sutton.
Percy Sutton and I were the closest of friends. A finer human being I’ve never met. But in the following article, I will write about our association.
Percy E. Sutton
Born: November 24, 1920, San Antonio, Texas
Died: December 26, 2009, New York, New York
Reflection on the Life and Times of Percy E. Sutton
He Was There for All of Us
Today, January 13, 2010, I celebrate my 79th birthday. I can think of no better way to celebrate it than to initiate a series of articles of reflections on a man I believe was one of the finest human beings who ever lived anywhere at any time. While no words could ever fully express my love and admiration for the “Chairman,” I hope and pray that I have, at least, expressed a measure of what I feel about Percy Ellis Sutton and his family.
Like a steadily flowing flood, tributes came from near and far, rich and poor, black and white, religious and non-religious, high and low, even from the President of the United States, and rightfully so. He deserved it all and more. Yet, when all the words have been uttered and written, when all the tributes have been put at his feet, they wouldn’t have told the whole story of this man named Percy Ellis Sutton. Indeed, you cannot fully understand and appreciate the person they called the “Chairman,” apart from his family—father, Samuel, and mother, Lillian, siblings, the Lone Ranger of Western movies. He rode in when there was a need and rode out not waiting for thanks and not waiting for thanks and accolades.
Contrary to the popular notion regarding strength and toughness, Percy was strong and tough and yet profoundly humble. He was meek, let me hasten to add, meek like Moses of the Holy Bible, which describes Moses as meekest above all men. In fact, as I pondered the characteristics of Percy they were strikingly similar to the qualities that I studied in Moses: perseverance, patience, courage, creativity, intelligence, persuasiveness, eloquence, vision, audacity, indomitability, leadership, compassion, skilled communicator, God-consciousness and a mystical oneness with his people.
How else can we explain why he was able to rise so high, starting so low? His father had been a slave who later sired 15 children. Percy was the youngest. The old man taught his children well—discipline, hard work, commitment, fairness or the Golden Rule, the importance of education, and the love of family. Percy, as did all the children, thoroughly internalized the lessons. They became a family of achievers including scientists, doctors, lawyers, educators, union organizers, entrepreneurs, judges, elected officials, and public servants. How many of us could hold three jobs and go to school? He worked as a post office clerk, a subway conductor, and as a waiter at Lundy’s Restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, on the weekends. He arrived at law school at 9:30 each morning and for three years this grueling schedule continued until his graduation. Meanwhile, he and Leatrice were raising two children. He became an honest, competent attorney at law, establishing a law partnership with his brother Oliver.
How else can we explain his success in the political jungle? He became one of the most powerful politicos in New York City. He was an elected New York State Assemblyman, was an organizer and founding member of the New York State Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus in the New York State Assembly, and he served as Manhattan Borough President for 11 years. In 1977 he made a historic run for mayor of New York City. I was among the first to endorse him. Percy’s influence was felt nationally and internationally.
How else can we explain how he became a Tuskegee Airman—a Black Eagle—zooming through the sky doing battle far above the clouds? The Black Eagles never lost a bomber. The white pilots who resisted their participation eventually fought to have their skill, dexterity, and bravery escort them on their bombing raids.
Yes, he was like Moses. He was a statesman, judge, lawgiver, teacher, organizer, motivator, and liberator. Without controversy, we as a people could not have gotten this far in our journey without Percy. While we have not reached the Promised Land—we are still in the wilderness— we have been freed from some of the chains of the past. Like the old preacher said, “We ain’t where we want to be, and we ain’t where we gonna be, but thank God we ain’t where we used to be.” Thanks, in no small measure, to Percy Ellis Sutton.
Percy joined us anyway. He had one condition that I will never forget and which I confess I have used often. His condition was that he did not want to stay around once he completed his task. “I will be glad to march with you and do whatever you ask me,” he said. “But when my assignment is done, I need to leave immediately. If I stay around people will bombard me with requests for help, and if I cannot deliver, they will be disappointed, and I will be frustrated.” Percy was with us when we went to jail on the South African issue. When Randall Robinson, then chair of Trans-Africa, former Congressman Walter Fauntroy, and historian and civil rights scholar Mary Frances Berry were arrested for protesting the apartheid system at the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C., in 1984, it ignited a “Free South Africa Movement.” There were pervasive arrests across the country as countless angry protesters, including well-known celebrities of every stratum, went to jail.
During the 1980s, I chaired the National Black United Front (N.B.U.F.). Current City Councilman Charles Barron was then my chief of staff, and I asked him to assist in coordinating the Free South Africa civil disobedience in New York. New York’s most prestigious personalities, including former Mayor Dinkins, and Congressman Charles Rangel, in fact, all the top politicos lined up to go to jail, as did Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and other notable artists and athletes.
Percy made an extraordinary request. He wanted to go to jail at a time when he could take his family with him. When that day arrived, Percy Sutton with his children submitted to the Jr.'s birthday. We wanted to march from the Church to City Hall. When we got to Brooklyn Bridge, we were prevented from taking the roadway. Police insisted we march along the pedestrian route. Tension erupted as we argued with the police and continuous police enforcement crowded the area. I remember Percy standing with us calmly and unruffled. He provided protection and leadership. No one was hurt. One person was jailed but this was because of other issues.
Another memory I recall was just a few years ago when Percy was at the church for a Kwanzaa program featuring Dr. Maulana Karenga, founder of the Afrocentric celebration. We sat together as we listened to the eloquent speech of Dr. Karenga. I remember feeling that my church family and I were so blessed to have these two giants in the freedom struggle in our church. I had the overwhelming feeling of unity and being wrapped in the mantle of history.
Finally, and perhaps the most memorable, surely the most melancholy, was a visit that he made some years ago. I think he was just out of the hospital or in some confinement due to illness. Refusing the elevator chair, he came up the stairs slowly with a walking cane. When he reached the sanctuary, he moved over to a seat in the corner of the church in a section closest to the landing. He sat quietly to himself. You wouldn’t know when he arrived. There was no fanfare because he was such a part of our church. He wanted space, and we provided it for him. He was very attentive as the worship proceeded. After the worship service, my wife and I conversed with him. He said, “I had to be in the House of the Lord this morning. I drove myself. They didn’t want me to come, but I insisted. So, when no one would drive me, I drove myself.” My wife and I were speechless. We walked with him back down the steps, out to the street where his car was parked, and watched as he drove away all by himself.
To be continued…