Now Let Us Praise Great Men!
Percy Sutton And Malcolm X In Harlem
On the day after Christmas the sad tydings reached my ears that honorable Percy Sutton had danced and joined the ancestors in that mysterious realm where all great servants of the people go when they transition from this life. Much will be said over the next few days about the life and legend of Percy Sutton; but the Reverend Al Sharpton correctly summed up the significance of Mr. Sutton’s life with the terse observation: “He represented the experience of black Americans in the twentieth century.” Hence the study of Mr. Sutton’s story is one way for young people to make sense of American history, especially how the ordeal of racism in the last century continues to shape America today. This is of critical importance because it is impossible to make sense of America at the end of the first decade of the twenty First century without and understanding of the critical lessons of the past century.
In the sound bite spectacle oriented society in which we presently dwell, a fast paced cybernetic world that prizes instant gratification, reading is becoming a lost art to many. But fortunately the internet provides succinct statements on many subjects, including pictures, profiles, interviews and articles about men and women of distinction. So it will be easy to conjure up the facts of Mr. Sutton’s life, and fortunately young people are the ones most at home in cyberspace. It is possible to confidently say that Mr. Sutton’s life is a roadmap through the African American experience in the twentieth Century because he experienced what every black man experienced from the streets to the suites.
Which is not the same thing as saying that he was a black everyman, because very few men in America – black or white – can bolster a fabulous life narrative comparable to that of Percy Sutton. Born the son of an ex- slave, Percy Sutton started at the bottom of American society. As a southerner he came of age in an apartheid America where white supremacy was openly proclaimed as the ruling ideology of the society. Racial inequality was enshrined in the law, although the Supreme Court and U.S. Congress would never admit that it was true. The Plessy v. Ferguson decision that created the racially segregated society in which Person Sutton lived most of his life, called for “separate but equal” facilities for both races as provided for in the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. This may have seemed a plausible possibility in theory, but it turned out to be a cruel fiction in practice.
The Supreme Court would reverse itself in the 1954 Brown decision, and rule that “Separate is inherently unequal,” yet this is the society in which Mr. Sutton had to compete with whites. His journey was made all the more difficult because even the smartest and most humane whites continued to praise America’s commitment to freedom, justice and opportunity for everyone, which meant that they had to deny his desperate reality because it contradicted the great American myth. Less humane and intelligent whites were prepared to do anything to keep “Niggers” in their “proper place,” which is to say absolute deference to white privilege upon punishment of injury, imprisonment or death!
A Dashing Young Fighter Pilot!
That A man forced to live under a system that was akin to being in a giant gulag, where your crime was the color of the skin the gods gave you, and become a fighter pilot, a lawyer, a pioneering businessman and media mogul, and the longest running Borough President Of Manhattan is prime face an epic tale. Although these achievements are enough to justify several lifetimes, Percy Sutton was also a devoted father and indefatigable warrior for his oppressed people. I first heard of Percy Sutton when he was Malcolm X’s lawyer. It was a great surprise because outwardly he appeared to be the quintessential bourgeois lawyer, but I observed him in action I was reminded of the wisdom of Aunt rosa’s warning: “Never judge a book by it’s cover.”
In Percy Sutton we have a role model for the ages. Elegant of style and manner, eloquent beyond words, smart as a whip, king maker in politics, splendid business man who served the interests of his community, freedom fighter at home and abroad. A giant by any measure and one of the finest products of African American culture. Indeed, what Shakespeare said of his noble Moor Othello is also true of Percy Sutton: The elements so blended in him that all the world could say… there was a man! And we may never see his like again.
We May Never See His Like Again!
Commentaries On the Times
Harlem New York
December 28, 2009