A native of San Antonio, Percy Sutton moved to New York City at age 12 in part to escape endemic racism, and he was soon volunteering for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, reportedly earning a beating for his trouble.
During World War II, Sutton served as an intelligence officer with the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black fighter group that flew escort for American bombers. He later completed law school and represented hundreds of civil rights workers, as well as such controversial figures as Malcolm X. He also courted controversy himself, returning to his native South as a Freedom Rider in the mid-1960s.
Sutton argued that “you ought always to keep the lines of communication open with those with whom you disagree.”
Among Harlem’s most prominent politicians, Sutton paved the way for African Americans to run successfully for mayor and governor. In 1971, he cofounded the Inner City Broadcasting Corporation, which operated New York City’s first African American radio station.
A 1936 Eagle Scout, Sutton credited Scouting with much of his success. “It gave me access; it helped me dream,” he said.