NEW YORK (AP) — Through his civic activism, business ventures and legal work, Percy Sutton touched many people's lives.
Thousands of them filled Riverside Church in Manhattan on Wednesday to say goodbye to Sutton, who died Dec. 26 at age 89.
Beginning early in the morning, they lined up outside the church in frigid weather to get into the sanctuary, where the former Tuskegee Airman's legacy was recalled in a nearly four-hour-long service.
Among those who spoke were Attorney General Eric Holder, Gov. David Paterson, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Attalah Shabazz, one of Malcolm X's daughters. Many recalled how Sutton had given them advice or had stood with them during struggles — or had laid the foundation for their own success.
Holder called Sutton "one of the nation's true heroes."
"I admired, respected and worked for him," he continued. "The opportunities given to my generation were paid for by the hard work and sacrifice of his. Without him, there would be no me."
Holder, a native New Yorker, continued, saying, "Generations of other African American lawyers stand on his strong, broad shoulders."
He then read a statement from President Barack Obama, who called Sutton's death "an enormous loss."
"Percy's passion for justice began at an early age and never wavered," Obama said in a statement, recounting an incident when Sutton was beaten at age 13 for passing out NAACP leaflets in a white neighborhood. "It was an experience that gave him strength and determination to stand up for what he believed in."
The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were among a group that escorted Sutton's relatives into the church. In a chapel near the main sanctuary, Sutton lay in a coffin, dressed in a Navy blue suit, white shirt and a tie.
"The tallest tree in our forest has fallen," Jackson said of Sutton.
"You've paved the way, Mr. Chairman. Be at rest," Jackson concluded.
Sharpton began his eulogy by recalling the 1999 police killing of Amadou Diallo. Sutton, then 79, laid down in protest outside police headquarters.
"Even when he was a multimillionaire, a media mogul, owned radio stations, welcomed in the White House and any other place of significance, he laid down in front of police headquarters for a West African boy he never knew," Sharpton said.
Bloomberg said city buildings lowered flags in honor of Sutton, and that a building that houses three Manhattan public schools would be renamed the Percy Ellis Sutton Educational Complex.
"Whatever opportunities New York City gave to Percy, he repaid them a thousand times over," Bloomberg said. "Because of him, the doors of City University were opened to all students. Because of him, black radio became a fixture on the dial."
U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel and former New York Mayor David Dinkins also attended. They, along with Sutton and Basil Paterson, father of New York's governor, were known as the "Gang of Four," a quartet of black political pioneers.
Stevie Wonder paid tribute by singing his 1976 hit, "As."
Sutton, who was born in Texas, served with the famed Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black unit, in World War II before coming to Harlem, where he launched a trailblazing career in civil rights, politics and broadcasting. He served in the New York State Assembly and was Manhattan borough president.
Through his Harlem law firm, which he founded in 1953, he represented civil rights activists including Malcolm X and the slain activist's relatives — even in their darkest times.
Sutton and Dinkins were attorneys for Malcolm Shabazz, who at age 12 set a 1997 apartment fire that killed his grandmother, Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X.
Attalah Shabazz, one of Malcolm X's daughters, said Sutton was not merely her father's attorney. The two were "brethren," she said.
"Even when things weren't on his side, he was always on yours. Am I right?" she said to applause from the sanctuary, which was filled to capacity.
Sutton turned his attention to broadcasting by 1971, becoming, along with his brother, Oliver, pioneer black owners of a radio station in New York City.
His Inner City Broadcasting Corp. eventually picked up WBLS-FM, which reigned for years as New York's top-rated radio station, before buying stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit and San Antonio.
Through the company, Sutton bought the Apollo Theater in 1981, rescuing the Harlem landmark from impending demise. Speakers at the service spoke about his key role in the revitalization of 125th Street, where the theater is located.
Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel, arrived at the ceremony early and appeared shaken. She said her family loved and admired Sutton, who was her son's godfather.
Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, called Sutton a "great man."
"He was part of a generation that transformed the nation. He was a renaissance man." Morial said, referring to Sutton's involvement in law, politics, business and civil rights.
Referring to the throngs of people who waited outside the church before services waiting to get inside, Morial said, "It is a testament to his incredible contribution, not only to Harlem and New York, but to the nation."
Morial said young people would do well to study Sutton's life, particularly his "stick-to-it-ness" and the barriers he overcame.
Dinkins said history would speak of Sutton as one of the most "dynamic, determined and dedicated men who ever walked these streets."
"Percy Ellis Sutton departed us paid in full," Dinkins said. "Let him not look down and find any of us in arrears."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.