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Riverside Church, a Beacon for African-American Culture, Hosts Percy Sutton's Funeral

By Nicole Bode | January 5, 2010 5:36pm | Updated on January 6, 2010 3:39pm
Riverside Church in Morningside Heights, where civil rights icon Percy Sutton will be laid to rest Wednesday.
Riverside Church in Morningside Heights, where civil rights icon Percy Sutton will be laid to rest Wednesday.
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Wikimedia/Olivier Perrin

By Austin Fenner

Special to DNAinfo

MANHATTAN — When civil rights titan and radio mogul Percy Sutton is laid to rest at Riverside Church, it will be the latest in a long line of solemn farewells for influential Black New Yorkers at the Morningside Heights landmark.

The multicultural congregation at Riverside Church has ushered in the final salute for towering African-American giants, including Malcolm X's widow Betty Shabazz, actor and political activist Ossie Davis, baseball great Jackie Robinson, 60 minutes journalist Ed Bradley, to name a few.

The church, located on Riverside Drive near 120th Street, was also the setting of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic 1967 speech against the Vietnam War.

The 2,400-seat church was built in 1929 by American industrialist John D. Rockefeller and started out with a predominantly white congregation.

Over time, however, it came to embody the collective aspirations of the African American community, through its stance on Civil Rights and other social justice issues throughout the decades.

“Riverside was the church, the congregation that empowered King to speak out against the Vietnam War when it wasn't popular," said Rutger University historian Clement Alexander Price.

"The church has been ennobled in the collective minds of African-Americans, especially in greater New York."

For most of the past two decades, until his retirement in 2007, the church was presided over by Rev. James Forbes Jr., one of the most influential black preachers in the country.

"The Riverside Church was a Rockefeller church that had a black minister," said Howard Dodson, the director of Harlem's Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture.

"In religious terms, it was like Barack Obama becoming President.”

Forbes will deliver the funeral prayer at Sutton's service Thursday.

Sutton, who served as a Tuskegee Airman during World War II, was a civil rights activists and a freedom rider who challenged racial segregation laws that denied blacks the right to use public facilities, like restaurants and hotels.

Later in life, he became a media mogul with his acquisition of New York radio stations WLIB and WBLS, which filled the airwaves with soul stirring gospel voices and funky rhythm and blues beats, respectively.

Sutton became Malcolm X’s lawyer and assumed the role of friend and guardian of Betty Shabazz and her family after her husband was assassinated.

Others expected at the service include the Rev. Al Sharpton, who will deliver the eulogy, and Sutton's so-called "Gang of Four" colleagues, former Mayor David Dinkins, Congressman Charles Rangel, and former NY State Senator Basil Paterson.

Rev. Jesse Jackson, Gov. David Paterson, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a host of African American leaders are expected to attend before many guests have to rush to the State of the State in Albany.

A funeral motorcade with process down 125th street with a brief pause in front of the Apollo Theater for a moment of silence following the service.

"This is the place where Dr. King preached from many times," Rev. Coleman said of Riverside’s history.

"It makes the nave a much more attractive place and meaningful place for African-Americans."