Jesse Jackson was standing by the front door at Riverside Church as Percy Sutton’s coffin made its way out of the church Wednesday afternoon. Jackson had opened the three-and-a-half-hour service with a poignant salute to “the tallest tree in our forest,” recalling the many “points of light” Sutton could claim as his own, from Malcolm to the Apollo to WLIB to Mayor David Dinkins and Governor David Paterson.
But now, Jackson was planted behind a red rope in a black overcoat and a beret, watching as Al Sharpton, whose eulogy had ended the service that Jackson’s brief remarks began, led the procession of family and close friends behind Sutton’s casket. When the procession came to a stop at the door, Sharpton summoned Jackson with the wave of his finger, inviting him to climb under the rope and join him at the head of the line as it left the church and headed by limo toward 125th Street, which one day may be called Sutton Way.
Sharpton’s sway at such a moment of loss might have been a New York thing, though 85 percent of the state’s blacks voted for Chicago’s Jackson in the 1984 and 1988 presidential primaries, and only a third voted for Sharpton in 2004. Sutton was, after all, an integral part of Jackson’s national brain trust, not Sharpton’s, and Jackson went to the Democratic convention with 1218 delegates in 1988, more like a typical Sutton success story than Sharpton’s 27, a measure of just how broadly blacks across America rejected him.
Nonetheless, in the circus of life, Sharpton somehow became Sutton’s priestly pathway to heaven, the only uncertain step the 89-year old patriarch took since he left Texas for New York as a stowaway at the age of 12. Sharpton is known more for his connections on earth than in heaven, ranging from the FBI, who registered him as a confidential informant wired up on Brooklyn and Bronx black officials, to GOP dirty trickster Roger Stone, who orchestrated his 2004 presidential campaign, to the Federal Election Commission, which fined him $285,000 last April for rampant campaign violations, to the Helmsley Carlton, where’s he’s lived in midtown luxury for years. He was once so connected to Columbo and Genovese crime family members he appeared in FBI videotapes with them, defining himself by telling them at one point: “If there’s money on the line, I’m moving on over to there.” In Sutton’s case, Sharpton’s most salient connection might be with WLIB, the Sutton-owned station that carries his weekly show, giving his star status at the memorial a corporate hue.
During the eulogy, Sharpton advertised another prime connection of his — to Governor Paterson — and in so doing, inadvertently unveiled how out of touch with Sutton he was. He said he learned Sutton was failing from the governor, who called him and said that he’d heard it from his father Basil, adding that Sharpton and he, “the next generation” (as Sharpton said Paterson put it), should visit Sutton. They did and then, a few days later, said Sharpton, the governor called again to say that Sutton had died, another indication that Sharpton was hardly the one ministering to this dying man. Sharpton, of course, was oblivious to the implications of Paterson’s solicitous calls to one of the state’s biggest tax scofflaws, who owes nearly a million dollars in 2008 and 2009 warrants.
There are those who knew Sutton better than I did who say he was far closer to Jackson than Sharpton, and that Jackson was hurt by his minor role in the farewell. Yet Jackson captured Sutton better in two minutes than Sharpton did in 20, with Reverend Al digging deeply into the soapbox of victimization while Jackson understood that the 2400-seat church was packed to cheer Harlem’s biggest winner.
Sharpton gave us instead the parable of the dog. He recalled how a “right wing reporter” told him in Sutton’s presence that he “was tired of hearing this civil rights stuff,” saying that “ya’ll talked about that in the 40s and 50s” and “then came King, then came Malcolm X, then came Jackson, now you Sharpton, it’s the same thing.” Sharpton started to argue with this caricature, but Sutton interrupted, saying “let me explain why it sounds the same to you.” Sutton recounted, claimed Sharpton, the tale of an A student who got an F on a paper about his family pet and, when he questioned it, was accused by his teacher of plagiarizing his story from his brother, who she said had written the same paper three years earlier in her class. “We have the same dog,” explained the student.
“So, if some of you think we sound like we always sound,” Sharpton thundered, ” it’s because we fightin’ the same dog. The same dog mentality that put us on the back of the bus, the same dog mentality that denied us the right to vote is the same dog mentality that will give bailout money to give bonuses, but won’t bail out Main Street or bail out Martin Luther King Boulevard.” Those who thought, for at least a moment, that the dog inside America was half a century old, unchanged by the Suttons, the Kings, the Jacksons and the Obamas, let themselves clap, stirred by this old battle cry, even when sung while a black president’s bailout subsidized bonuses. The shrill defiance, indifferent to the very history he was at the pulpit to celebrate, was a commentary on Sharpton’s irrelevance. He can only stir a crowd if he can convince them to forget the grand lesson of their lives, forget Eric Holder, who is now the nation’s lawyer and said at the service he “once worked” for Sutton, forget David Dinkins, who said “there wouldn’t have been a Mayor Dinkins without Percy Sutton,” forget even the transformation of Sutton’s Harlem.
I remember my own moments with Percy Sutton in 1989, when Dinkins’ holdings in Inner City Broadcasting almost cost him the mayoral election. The Voice broke the story about how Dinkins had voted on critical contracts for the cable company even while he held stock in it, and Sutton tried to talk me out of it, as coolly and persuasively as any operator I ever had in a corner. He was not honored on Wednesday because he was a saint or a victim. He was honored because he worked the system, beat the system, proved, like Sugar Ray and Jackie, that pioneers could prevail.
Research Assistance by: Scott Greenberg, Alana Horowitz, Simon McCormack, T.J. Raphael