By Gloria Dulan-Wilson
I was a beautiful day in the Neighborhood of Harlem. The sky was bright. The weather was brisk, and thousands of people were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, elbow-to-elbow to honor the life, times and memory of a beloved brother: PERCY ELLIS SUTTON.
The entire three plus hour ceremony (which could have righteously gone on for an entire day) was presided over by Rev. Dr. James Forbes, minister former minister of Riverside Church, and a long time family friend.
The ceremony fittingly began with the Black National Anthem: LIFT EV'RY VOICE AND SING. Percy Sutton clearly had a hand in this. It was a pet peeve of his when Black organizations either skipped the song, put in the middle or at the end, or had a soloist who sang it so well that the rest of the audience could not participate.
Former Mayor, David N. Dinkins stated reflectively, in reference to their friendship, which will forever be known as “the Gang of Four“: “We were four, now we are three.” But I kind of disagree with that statement. While it’s true that the Honorable Percy Sutton is no longer with us physically, he will always be with us spiritually. In fact, I think Percy Sutton was just as much a part of that homegoing ceremony as were the thousands who gathered there to honor him.
I could see him, sitting in front, at the top of the arches, with those beautiful stained glass windows behind him; smiling confidently and happily, as his granddaughter, Danielle Lee Sutton, danced for him.
Or that immense look of pride as his first born granddaughter, Keisha, spoke of his love for her. I could see him standing in front of the Harlem Commonwealth Council, where he had his office for decades, tipping his hat to the funeral procession as they passed by in his honor. Or standing in front of the Apollo pointing to the marquee with his name on it. It’s perhaps the first time in his long involvement for the beloved theater that his name has actually been up there in lights.
He beamed with pride as Attilah Shabazz stood and praised him for having stood by her father and her family long before the media knew who he was; long before the threats. And never left or forsake them, even after Malcolm’s assassination, and Bette’s tragic death. How he made sure they had what they needed all through their formative years. What greater proof that Percy was an eagle, rising above common turkeys who were afraid to take stands or take a stake in the future of their people. She wore a dash of Red in his honor (Kappa man that he was).
He watched with even greater pride, when US Attorney General Eric Holder, who not only attended and spoke at his services, but actually stayed throughout the entire ceremony. Holder spoke of his love for Percy, who had employed and mentored him during his fledgling years as a lawyer. “I admired him, I respected him; I worked for him. Without Percy Sutton there would be no me,” he stated matter of factly. Holder then read a letter to the family from President and Ms. Barack Obama, who expressed their deepest sympathy for their loss and their gratitude and appreciation for all he has done for New York and African Americans.
Governor David Paterson, could not have made him any prouder of him than he already was when he stated, via satellite, that it was Percy who persuaded him to seek political office. It was because of his interaction with Percy and his equally famous father, and member of the Gang of Four, Basil Paterson, that he found the wisdom, support and mentorship to progress into ever more responsible positions of public service. “He would address issues in such a kind way, that even though he was criticizing you, you thought that he was giving you a compliment.”
Inez Dickens acknowledged the Chairman by saying she would definitely not have been elected to City Council had it not been for the guidance of Percy Sutton. She also admitted that there were also times when he was criticizing you and you definitely knew you were being criticized.”
Rev. Jesse Jackson’s comparison to the galaxy, with each of Percy’s accomplishments forming Points of light must have made him smile. Stated Jackson, “Percy never stopped; from Texas to New York to Africa, the Apollo, the SEEK program. He left more than he found -- points of light; so many points of light his accomplishments were like a galaxy of stars. No one has done so much for so many for so long, This Christmas heaven had no finer gift than Percy Sutton -- he represents the transitional forces in all of us; a renaissance man. Rev. Al Sharpton, the Shabazz Family, the Jacksons, they all claim him, he’s one of us. Points of light. Wrote the script for Apollo Five.”
He was duly honored to learn that Mayor Bloomberg had named a complex, a postal facility and a school in his honor. Though he never sought those accolades, they pleased him hevertheless.
He probably was the only one not surprised that Stevie Wonder took the red-eye overnight flight from California to be at his services. “Percy Sutton is the reason that I have my own radio station,” stated the “Wonderman”, who then played “AS”, a hit from his “Songs in the Key of Life” album. Over the years they had forged a very close and abiding friendship, with Stevie considering Sutton a mentor and a friend. “I am so happy for you that you were blessed to have had such a king in your lives.”
Congressman Rangel, also of the "Gang of Four" apologized to his wifel: “Leatrice,what can we say? We treated Percy like we owned him. We never thought of leaving without consulting him. Sometimes at 4:00 in the morning. Thank you for sharing him with us. And you allowed us to do it. We are so grateful for your sharing this great man. This entire world has felt the imprint of this great man.”
The Congressman recounted that when a woman grabbed him, crying over Percy’s transition, he asked her if she knew him. “She said no, but Percy knew me.” “All I knew was Lenox Ave., the only thing I missed was class, and Percy tried desperately to give it to me. Percy made everybody feel like he was somebody.” “We can’t all be Percy Sutton, but there is a little Percy Sutton in each and every one of you. And I know, I feel that apart of my mission is to make sure that Percy Sutton never dies. I will be meeting with the President of the United States afternoon, and if I have one message it is from Percy to make sure that health care is nothing to bargain with. And Percy will always be in our hearts and minds.”
And Basil Paterson, father of Gov. David Paterson, part of that honored "Gang of Four," and second only to Sutton in being one of the best dressed Black men in Harlem, spoke of the many misadventures they embarked upon in trying to bring Harlem back to life.
Tuskeegee Airman and friend Roscoe C. Brown, who knew Percy since 1944, proudly wore his Tuskeegee Airman’s cap, as he spoke of the audacity of Percy Sutton, who was the troop commander. He recalled how Mr. Sutton sent them out on missions, based on reports he received from base command. “To hear him tell it, the Nazis didn’t stand a chance, and everything was under their control, only to find it was nothing like he said. They would go into combat and come back angry at him, only to have him respond, “Well, you made it back, didn’t you.”
According to Brown, it was Percy Sutton who made the recommendations for citation and make sure they were embellished sufficiently so that there would be no way they could be denied. Percy was also the creator of the New York City Marathon. When the other Tuskeegee Airman stood in salute to Percy, he, no doubt, saluted them back.
Hazel Dukes, President of the New York Chapter of the NAACP recalled how she, as a young girl from Montgomery, Alabama, was taken under his wing and assisted in receiving the education and guidance she needed to rise in her career.
But when Rev. Al Sharpton, who had known Percy Sutton since he was 12 years old, delivered the Eulogy, you really knew that Percy Sutton was among us. It was Rev. Sharpton who said it best of all. Recounting how Percy Sutton, at the age of 75, joined hundreds of protesters during the Amadou Diallo debacle, laying down on the concrete at One Police Plaza, to be arrested with them. When Sharpton tried to dissuade them, he stated that he had participated in Civil Rights protests in his youth, and he saw no need to stop now.
Stated Al, vociferously, “Even though he was a multimillionaire, the owner of radio stations and communication facilities, savior of the Apollo, who could walk into the White House, or any where else; he laid down for a West African boy who he never knew.”
When Percy turned in a paper to a teacher about an experience he had with a pet, the teacher gave him a failing grade, accusing him of plagiarizing a paper from an older brother who had written on the same subject. Percy responded, now I understand what the problem is. It’s not that I copied from my brother, it’s that we wrote about the same dog. And the problem that Percy realized in dealing with problems in society was that we were all fighting the same dog. So when the media accused us of talking about the same thing over and over again, it’s because we’re dealing with the same dog.
When a “negro” complained that Civil Rights had done nothing for him; he had gone to the right schools, taken the right courses, met the right people, and that he became successful on his own: “Civil rights didn’t write my resume!” Sharpton responded, “You’re right. But Civil Rights made them read your resume.”
“We had to get America ready for the first Black congressman. We were ready before Bill Dawson. America wasn’t ready. We were ready for the first Black President, we had several candidates. But if it wasn’t for Percy Sutton, we would have never been ready. He changed America! “
Rev. Sharpton, upon visiting Mr. Sutton before his passing, saw a look in his eyes that seemed to say: “I fought a good fight. It started with my parents born in slavery. But I ended with my grandchildren born in Black royalty. Started with -- and lawyers, but I ended with a Black Attorney General. I fought a good fight. Started with Harlem dilapidated -- Harlem, closed. All that was there were rats and roaches. I bought the Apollo and the stage and now it’s known all over the world. Don’t feel sorry for him, because 100 years from now what he built will still be remembered. What will they think about you? Percy Sutton lived a life unequaled by anyone else in this town. Built radio stations, opened theaters, opened up businesses, opened up opportunities, political power; all in a life -- and been a husband, father, grandfather.
“Someone said that Percy Sutton died, but Percy Sutton didn’t die, he just passed away. Wherever there is a Black politician or a Black elected official, that’s Percy Sutton. Percy Sutton passed on, and in his passing, we’re glad he passed this way.
“Percy Sutton made you feel important, regardless of your station in life. He never looked down on anyone. He saw the best in you when you couldn’t see the best in yourself, and brought it out. He made us feel important. And that’s why we love Percy Sutton. He took the best of our ideas and made it into a radio station so that the world could listen.“ He completed by saying that Percy Sutton did not die, because “I am Percy Sutton!” In fact each and every one in the service stood and said: I AM PERCY SUTTON!!”
Make no mistake about it, Percy Sutton has left some mighty big shoes to fill. But it does not disturb him as much as it would have, had he had left no path whatsoever to follow. He in fact left a map in bold relief. I call it the GPS (Great Percy Sutton) positioning system. It‘s there when you can‘t figure out which stand to take when a Black person needs help; when you can‘t decide between politically expedient and the needs of the people; when you can‘t decide on quality vs. quantity. All you have to do is consult the GPS and say, “WHAT WOULD PERCY SUTTON DO? If you do that, you will always be on the right track. Never lost. He is always here in spirit to continue guiding us in reaching the destinations he’s reached, and beyond -- Not just for himself, but for his family of people.
Whether you were able to personally attend his Homegoing services, or you watched it on New York 1, or read it in the papers, I am sure that by now you, too, realize that Percy Sutton was moving on to his next great accomplishment. One that he has been working on all his life, where the Eagle became an Angel. So it was befitting that flautist, Bobbi Humphrey played R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.”
He was already soaring as an Eagle. But now he can do something that he’s wanted to do all his life - be every where he wants to be at the same time. Because the Angel of Percy Sutton is with us all.
Stay Blessed &
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About the author: Gloria Dulan-Wilson is a New York based Journalist that has specialized in writing about the "Lives Of Black People" for the past 25+ years and has produced numerous articles that exposes the "ECLECTICALLY BLACK EXPERIENCE". Visit Gloria Dulan-Wilson Blog at http://gloria-dulan-wilson.blogspot.com/
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