By Austin Fenner, Heather Grossmann and Joshua Williams
MANHATTAN — Icons of the civil rights movement, the city's most powerful politicians and hundreds of regular New Yorkers jammed into Riverside Church in Morningside Heights Wednesday to pay their respects to Harlem’s Percy Sutton, who died last month at the age of 89.
“We are all extended members of the Sutton family,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said from the pulpit. “Today, all Harlem weeps, the heavens rejoice.”
Gov. David Paterson showed up early and videotaped a statement before returning to Albany to deliver his State of the State address. In the statement, played during the service, Paterson remembered Sutton as a mentor and guide to his political career.
“He was the first person to suggest I run for office,” Paterson said.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder described Sutton as “a man who combined equal measure of intelligence, passion, commitment, courage and style.”
“The opportunities that my generation has been given were paid for by his hard work and sacrifice," he said. "Without him, there would be no me.”
Holder read a statement from President Obama and his wife, Michelle, in which they called Sutton “a master of the law, a savvy businessman, and tireless champion of the city.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he had repeatedly sought Sutton’s political advice, and was glad when he followed it.
"And I always admired how at an age when many are thinking about grandkids and retirement, Percy was still consumed with how to make this city he loved even better."
Bloomberg announced that three public schools housed in a historic building Edgecombe Avenue and 135th Street would be renamed the Percy Ellis Sutton Educational Complex.
Hours before the service, people lined up outside the church entrance on Riverside Drive and around the corner on to 120th Street in the hope of getting inside. As the 2,400-seat church filled, the aisles were lit by candles, and an array of bouquets surrounded the front pews. At the foot of the pulpit’s steps, Sutton’s casket was draped with purple orchids.
The service was led by the Rev. James Forbes Jr., one of the country’s most influential black preachers and former head of the historic church.
Speakers also included the other members of Sutton's so-called "Gang of Four" colleagues, Rep. Charles Rangel, former Mayor David Dinkins, and former State Sen. Basil Paterson.
Rangel recalled walking on 135th Street after Sutton’s death and a weeping woman stopping him. He asked her if she knew Sutton. “No,” she told him. “But Percy knew me.”
“He made you feel like you were somebody, made you feel like he was your best friend,” Rangel said.
Melba Moore sang "Amazing Grace." Stevie Wonder, who flew overnight to make the service, sang “I’ll Be Loving You Always” while changing one line for Sutton: “Percy will be loving us always.”
Keisha Sutton-James, one of Percy Sutton’s four grandchildren, said that she considered him “larger than life, up there with Albert Einstein and Superman, grand and infallible.”
The most important lesson he taught her, she said, was “to love fully.” She recalled getting a standing ovation every time she walked into a room with him. “He made sure that this little black girl knew she was amazing.”
All of this was in tribute to a man born in the Jim Crow south who came of age in 1950s Harlem, and was elected Manhattan borough president. He served as a Tuskegee Airman during World War II and was a civil rights freedom rider who challenged racial segregation laws that denied blacks the right to use public facilities, like restaurants and hotels. He became Malcolm X’s lawyer and assumed the role of friend and guardian of Betty Shabazz and her family after her husband was assassinated.
He became a media mogul with his acquisition of New York radio stations WLIB and WBLS. In the 1980s, his broadcasting company bought the bankrupt Apollo Theater and oversaw its renovation and reopening.
In the eulogy, the Rev. Al Sharpton talked about Sutton not as a media mogul or millionaire, but as a man who put his life in danger for causes he believed in, and whose dreams inspired Harlem.
"We are here because he invested in a community that didn't believe in itself," Sharpton said.
Following the service, a funeral motorcade headed down 125th Street and stopped at the Apollo, where Sharpton and Jackson got out and asked the small crowd for a moment of silence. Overhead, the marquee read: "In Memory of the Honorable Percey E. Sutton, Nov. 24, 1920 - Dec. 26, 2009."
The brief observation ended, the preachers got back into their cars, and the hearse drove away.