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"Mr. Chairman," Percy Ellis Sutton, passes at 89

Herb Boyd | 4/12/2011, 5:22 p.m.
**UPDATE** Percy Sutton will be funeralized at the Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Drive, New York,...
"Mr. Chairman," Percy Ellis Sutton, passes at 89

Born November 24, 1920 in San Antonio, Texas, Sutton was the youngest of 15 children. When he was 12 years old he ran away from home and somehow managed to get all the way to Harlem. That was a brief stay and back home in Texas he began flying stunt planes. This experience will go on to serve him well as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, though he was mainly an intelligence officer.

"I first met Percy in the summer of 1944 in Italy during World War II," fellow Tuskegee Airman Dr. Roscoe Brown recalled during a tribute to Sutton last year. "He was the intelligence officer for our group, and what made him stand out for me was his distinct diction. Whenever we had a mission, Percy had a way of putting a human face on things."

And that diction and putting a human face on things were part of his charm and charisma, and this went a long way toward winning the love of Leatrice O'Farrell, who married him in 1943. Pierre and Cheryl are their two children. Keisha, Maximillian, Danielle, and Sierra are the grandchildren, and Nola James the great-grandchild.

After being honorably discharged from the military with the rank of captain, Sutton enrolled in Brooklyn Law School while holding down two jobs, one as a subway conductor for the New York Transit where he read torts between stops, and the other at the post office. Ironically, as Sharpton noted, the post office on 125th Street next door to Sutton's office is named after him.

Among his first clients upon receiving his law degree were men who matched his audacity: boxing immortal Sugar Ray Robinson and Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz). It was with the same fearless commitment that he joined the civil and human rights movement, braving arch-segregationists as a Freedom Rider and enduring the terror and confinement of southern jails.

The movement, particularly standing up to the Klan and other white supremacists, was all the preparation he needed when he assumed the helm of the New York City Branch of the NAACP. Hazel Dukes met Sutton for the first time in Chicago in 1963 at a NAACP national convention. "We were planning a march but the Rev. J.H. Jackson, who was the president of the National Baptist Convention, didn't believe in the civil rights marches," she said. "He felt that marching were unpatriotic. Later that evening Percy called a meeting of the New York Caucus that was opposed to the NAACP's old guard. So, being a good Baptist, I raised my hand, and I said 'Well, he's a minister...' and before I could say another word, Percy said, 'Very well, young lady, but I want you to take your seat.' I was stunned.

"When I think about that incident now," added Dukes, who is the president of the New York State Conference of NAACP Branches, "he was absolutely right."

And being right has been the hallmark of Sutton's odyssey, and his prescience in the world of business has been almost miraculous. "He was the consummate entrepreneur," said Londel Davis, owner of Londel's supper club. "It's going to be really hard to replace him and what he has meant over the years to our community."