Archive for Malcolm X

My Life Among the Chattering Classes

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2012 by playthell
On WBAI FM, Live and Direct from New York City

 Why I love the Radio

On May 25, 1962, my 20th birthday, I made my debut in the wonderful world of radio.  It was a live broadcast over WDAS AM in Philadelphia.  I presented an hour long lecture on African history, “Was Ancient Egypt an African Civilization,” analyzing the evidence that they were black and the African character of Egyptian religion and Divine Kingship.  At the conclusion of my lecture the producer opened the phones and I took questions for two hours.  The response was sensational and I presented a series of history lectures twice a week for four years.  My life has never been the same.

The show was called “The Listening Post,” and was hosted by Mr. Joseph H. Rainey.  Judge Rainey, as he was known through-out the city, was a retired Magistrate in the Civil Court, a political player in the Democratic machine, which allocated power and privilege in the city, and a militant advocate for Afro-American rights.  Judge Rainey was the grandson of Congressman Joseph H. Rainey, the first Congressman seated from the defeated confederate state of South Carolina after the Civil War.

The Black Radical Republicans

Joseph H. Rainey is seated second on the right

Judge Rainey had deep roots in the Afro-American elite, but the militant fighting “Talented Tenth,”who answered the call of Dr. DuBois to assume the leadership of the black community, and guide the masses to higher ground.  One of the benefits of my association with Mr. Rainey on “The Listening Post,” was that it was the show all the smart progressive Afro-Americans listened to in Philly, Southern New Jersey and Nothern Delaware.  It also had a smaller white audience composed of leftist intellectuals and civil rights activist.  The Listening Post would have been right at home on WBAI.

My involvement with the show transformed my life; it was a gift that keeps on giving.  Among the highlights of my participation on the show was the fact that Judge Rainey was good friends with Malcolm X.  And whenever Malcolm spoke in Philadelphia, Wilmington Delaware or Camden New Jersey, he came on the show the day before his speech.

Hence I got to know Malcolm quite well, and had a bird’s eye seat during the last three years of his life as he went through radical changes and ultimately assassination.  I was there for the broadcast that Dr. Manning Marable describes in his Pulitzer Prize winning biography: Malcolm X, A Life of Reinventions.

Judge Joe Rainey Interviewing the Great Jackie Robinson

 The “Listening Post” was a pioneer in Progressive Talk Radio

But it was also on The Listening Post that I met Queen Mother Moore, an indefatigable freedom fighter whose resume included a stint with Marcus Garvey and the American Communist Party.  A New Orleans Creole who had settled in Philadelphia, she was 65 when I met her and she took me under her wings just days after my birthday broadcast, and tutored me in the art and science of politics and mass struggle.

The Queen Mother aka Audley Moore was one of the great women of the 20th century, and she left an indelible mark on me.  I also met the Reverend Dr. Leon Sullivan, “The Lion of Zion,” who was to become one of the most powerful men in America by the end of the turbulent 1960’s.

Queen Mother Moore

My first political Tutor

 The Lion of Zion!


 A visionary and servant of the people

Suffice it to say that Reverend Sullivan hired me to teach a course on black history in the basement of his church, Mount Zion Baptist.  Me and Max Stanford would organize the Revolutionary Action Movement from that class. And it was RAM cadres who went on to organize the black Panther Party of Oakland. Bobby Seales and Huey Newton were students at Merritt Junior College, where one of our Cadres’ got a job teaching sociology, and they were his first recruits.  Bobby refers to his teacher and revolutionary tutor as “Kenny Freeman,” but that was his “slave name,” we knew him as Mamadou Dia.

When the War on Poverty began Reverend Sullivan founded The Opportunities Industrialization Centers, which began in Philadelphia and spread to over 100 cities.  He hired me to teach in the main center in Philadelphia, “The Proto-type,” and develop a black history curriculum for the national program.  A couple of years later the Philadelphia Board of Education hired me as a consultant to work with cirriculum specialist and conduct seminars with history teachers in the school system, preparing them  to teach African and Afro-American history.  This was around 1966.

Other school boards around the country also began to hire me to conduct seminars or present a lecture series on the subject ranging from witchata Kansas, Minneapolis and Saint Paul Minesota, and Riverside California.  By 1969 I was a founding member of the WEB DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies at U-Mass Amherst, the first degree granting Black Studies in the World.  That’s what my first foray into radio did for me.

When I left the university and moved to New York, after a stint in the music, boxing and construction business I returned to radio at WBAI around 1986.  That’s when I began the series “Commentaries On The Times.”  This brought me to the attention of Terry Johnson, the City Desk Editor at the Village Voice, who invited me to write for the paper.  The second article I wrote was an 8000 word feature that was publshed as the cover story in 1988 titled “Jive at Five: How Big Al and the Bully Boys Bogarted the Movement.” 

It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Journalism. ( see the nominating letter in my bio on this blog)  This article brought me to the attention of the Senior Editor of the Manchester Guardian in England who commissioned me to write a feature for the Guardian.  Thius began an association that lasted several years, in which I wrote for the front and the back of the paper – politics, the arts, and boxing.

When the Arts Editor, Joslyn Targett, became the Editor of the prestigeous Sunday Times magazine “The Culture,” he invited me to come along for the ride.  I was given carte blanche to write as much as I wanted to.   When two of my feature stories from the Village voice were selected for study at the Columbia School of Journalism, the top of the food chain for training professional journalists, I was recruited to write by the New York Daily News. 

From there I was recruited to write commentary and features for “Emerge” magazine, a nationals Afro-American hard news publication.  I was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Commentary at the News, and I was nominated for Foriegn Correspondent of the Year several times.  And I won awards at ever othere one of the publications I wrote for.   And eventually I held an Adjunct Professorship in Journalism at Long Island University.

All of this grew out of my work at WBAI FM in New York, where I would also host two different talk shows.  Radio has been as good to me as baseball was to Chico Consuello!  That’s why I’m still droppin science on the radio 50 years after my first broadcast on the Joe Rainey show on May 25th 1962.

Double Click on the link to see Playthell Live on Air at WBAI


Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

May 25th, 1942


On The Burden of History

Posted in Cultural Matters, My Struggle On the Left! with tags , , , , , on January 17, 2012 by playthell

        The Great Encounter

  Malcolm, Martin and the Black Freedom Struggle

The publication of Dr. Manning Marable’s new book “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” has sparked yet another debate on the place of Malcolm in the pantheon of black leaders.  As always this soon becomes a conversation on the relative importance of Malcolm’s ideas, leadership style and accomplishments when compared to Dr. Martin Luther King.  Now this debate has gone global through Facebook; particularly the Study Group organized by Rev. Matthew, a Christian minister with a graduate degree in theology from Princeton.

Recently he posted a video of Professor John Hendrik Clarke, an excerpt from the documentary “A Great and Mighty Walk,” discussing Malcolm and Martin, and asked for comments.  I watched the video, in which Clarke gave Dr. King some props, but it struck me as close to damming with faint praise.  He pointed out that since Dr. King “died for what he believed in, and we are still here talking, who are we to criticize him.”  But then, he fairly quickly went on to sing the virtues of Malcolm at the clear expense of Martin.

It seems the fact that Malcolm expoused a Black Nationalist philosophy and was finally  willing to call himself an “African,”  was quite enough for Clarke.  However in Malcolm’s case, this recognition was a dramatic evolution; for the first few years that I knew him he called himself an “Asiatic Black Man.”  Since Dr. Martin Luther King was present at the Independence ceremony when Ghana was born in 1957 – at the invitation of President Kwame Nkrumah – and had known many African students in Atlanta in his youth, unlike Malcolm Martin knew exactly what his relationship was to Africa.

John Hendrik Clarke viewed Africa in much the way that ancient Greeks wrote history: myth and fact combine in the narrative to create a desired reality.  I doubt that there is a black person on earth who had the good fortune to hear Professor Clarke give a lecture on the golden age of African Civilization that did not fairly burst with pride.

Clarke belonged to another age, he was of one heart with the 19th century African Redemptionists like Bishop Alexander Crummel and Edward Wilmot Blyden.  From his comments on Malcolm and Martin alas, it appears that ostentatious declarations of one’s African identity weighs heavier on Professor Clarke’s scale than leading a mass movement that actually transformed a nation and expanded the horizons of black Americans beyond the wildest dreams of his generation.  I see the matter differently!

          Queen Mother Moore

She tutored us all in Radical Politics…including Malcolm X 

I knew John Hendrik Clarke very well…he was introduced to me by Queen Mother Moore in 1962.  He was one of my major mentors – along with Queen Mother and Harold Cruse – I loved him like a father, although he and Cruse couldn’t stand each other!  And like everybody else I was enthralled with his eloquent and passionate lectures on African History – the breadth of his reading was amazing.  But what the Professor is saying in “A Great and Mighty Walk” is sophistry; it sounds profound until you subject it to a rigorous critique based on the historical evidence!

Clarke says that he doesn’t know of anything important that came out of the great March onWashington in 1963…duh?  How about the Omnibus Civil Rights Bill that transformed the South…and the nation?  I grew up in the South under segregation – as did Clarke when things were at their worse – and in my hometown of St. Augustine Florida, where Dr. King walked with the black community on some of the most dangerous marches of his career, that Bill changed black folk’s lives and life chances qualitatively.  Andrew young, who was there, has just produced a film on it.

The St. Augustine struggle was pivotal in the passage of that landmark legislation – see “Let the Trumpet Sound” by Professor Stephen B. Oates, and “Parting the Waters” by Taylor Branch, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his writings on the life and work of Dr. King – and it was the 1964 Civil rights bill that made it possible for the people of my hometown to rise up and overthrow that evil century old de jure racial caste system that made our lives so miserable under the force of law.

The fact is that in the South, where the real life and death struggle of our people was taking place, Malcolm X played no significant role at all!!!!   He was barely known by most southern blacks, and most of those who did know of him thought he was crazy!!!!!!  It was the Christian clergy that led that great transformative mass movement and the black church was its base!

  A Typical Church Meeting, Albany Georgia 1963
 The incubator of the Struggle

Hence Malcolm X, with his foreign religion and talk of taking up guns against the white South, was viewed as some sort of heretical maniac!  For the last couple of years I have been interviewing the survivors of the St. Augustine Civil Rights Movement and when Malcolm X is mentioned in conjunction with their struggle they stare at me incredulously: like country cows staring at their first steam engine.

I had left town and relocated in Philadelphia, where I was born and spent the first few years of my life, and I was a staunch admirer of Malcolm by the time Dr. King came to St.   Augustine.  Hence in preparation for my interviews I have been reading the materials on the Civil Rights era in the historical archives of the city.  Since St. Augustine is the nation’s oldest city, they have excellent archives because history is their business.  Thus one can follow the progress of the Movement on a day to day basis.

Reading accounts of the heroism of my friends and neighbors in 1964, when the Civil rights bill was being debated, I am astonished at their bravery in the face of injury and death!  When I asked them where they found the courage to conduct the night marches – so that people could go to work during the day – they said it was the fact that theMarches formed at either St. Mary’s Baptist Church onWashington St.or St. Pauls’ AME onCentral Avenue– which is nowMartin Luther King   Boulevard!

They told me it was the great preaching and singing that fortified them because they were convinced the “God was on our side.”  On one of the most dangerous night marches where they knew that the local redneck leader, “Hoss” Manucy, was laying in wait with members of the “Ancient City Gun Club -” which we later learned as a result of an investigation by US Marshalls was organized by deputies in Sheriff L. O. Davis’ office – two of my old friends told me “It was when we heard that Jackie Robinson was going to march with us that we decided to do it.  We thought if Jackie Robinson was going to march with us we couldn’t lose!”

To these people Malcolm X was just a crazy loud mouth guy talking tough inNew York!  And the contemptuous things that he was saying about Dr. King – whom many regarded as a modern day Moses bordered on blasphemy!   He had no admirers that I have been able to find inSt. Augustine.

While Malcolm was talking a good fight surrounded by fanatical body guards in northern cities, Dr. King and Jackie Robinson was marching with them in the shadow of death.  While Malcolm was running his mouth about what he would do to the white devils in Harlem, my neighbor’s Reverend Goldie Eubanks and his son Richard shot it out with Klan members and killed a couple of them!!

Then they were put on trial for murder facing the death penalty.  Had it not been for the brilliant and fearless lawyer William Kuntzler, who was sent by The Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, Goldie and Richard would have been electrocuted in “Old sparky” which is what we called the electric chair in Florida.

Jackie Robinson, who was a former Calvary Officer in the US Army – where he faced a possible court Marshall because of his militant stand against racism in the military and only the intervention of Heavy-Weight Champion and national hero Joe Louis prevented it – once got tired of Malcolm’s heckling and called his bluff straight up.  When the LA police invaded the Mosque and beat up the “Fruit Of Islam,” badly injuring some of them, Jackie called Malcolm out when he responded by hiring a lawyer and pursuing a legal remedy instead of taking the kind of militant action that he always TALKED ABOUT!

Jackie Leading  on the Front Line  A Dangerous Night March in St. Augustine
A Real Warrior
A Swashbuckling Calvery Officer
Comrades in the Struggle
Martin and Jackie

To Jackie, a fearless soldier in the struggle, Malcolm X was all blow and no go!  Malcolm never said a word in response because he knew that Jackie was right!!!  It was these kinds of instances that began to shake Malcolm’s faith in the philosophy and tactics of the NOI.  His shock over the discovery of Elijah Muhammad’s serial affairs with his secretaries shook his faith, and his remarks about the Kennedy assassination brought matters to a head.  But it was his growing doubts about their tactics, which was to stand on the sidelines and belittle the activists who were putting their lives on the line, which began Malcolm’s alienation from the NOI.

One of the advantages of having lived through the era as an active participant is that I can fill some of the gaps in the Malcolm/ Martin narrative from actual experience. However Malcolm X’s speeches are available on recording and printed transcripts, so what he believed and when he believed it is a matter of public record.

The excellent historian of the movement and Stanford Professor Clayborne Carson – who was a grat admirer of Bob Moses, a leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committe, who were considered uncontrollable guerillas by the Civil rights Establishment; which is why they made John Lewis change his speech before delivering it at the Great March when a Catholic Cardinal threatened to walk out – has complied a volume “The Co-In-Tel-Pro papers of Malcolm X,” which examines the FBI files on Malcolm.  Carson, who is the Editor of the Martin Luther King Papers, shows that in his last days Malcolm was desperately reaching out to the Civil rights leadership in the hope of affecting an alliance.  The late great actor/activist Ossie Davis was his emissary.

John Henrik Clarke
A great thinker, but wrong on Malcolm and Martin

 This was confirmed in my interviews with Charles Kenyatta for a 7000 word cover story on Malcolm’s last days for Spin Magazine, written at the height of the last period of Malcolmania when Spike Lee’s movie came out.  Having lived through this period as a gun totin Maoist revolutionary in the Revolutionary Action Movement, and a featured lecturer on African and Afro-American history on “The Listening Post,” which was a pioneering talk radio show on WDAS am– a major black radio station in Philadelphia, produced and hosted by Mr. Joseph H. Rainey III – I had many personal conversations with Malcolm X.

Whenever he came to speak in Philly, Camden New Jersey, or Wilmington Delaware, he would come on the program to hype his appearance because all of these venues were in the broadcast range of the station.  I admired his selfless commitment to the liberation of our people, and at the time I favored his militant stance – which was purely rhetorical – over the “passive resistance activism “of Martin Luther King.

Joseph H. Rainey III Interviewing Jackie Robinson
“The Listening Post” Was also Malcolm’s Favorite Show

 During this period of the 1960’s I even said some of the same kind of foolishness that Professor Clarke is saying on this video – after all he was my mentor at the time. I was always coming up from Philly to visit him at his office in the Harlem YMCA, which was right across the street from the Schomburg Collection – the original public library which is right next to the present center that was designed by my neighbor Max Bond.

However it is time for the militant Marxist and Black Nationalist – and as a “Revolutionary Nationalist” I was both! – to admit that we were wrong and the civil rights movement was right in their tactics!!!  That is something that few of the Sixties “revolutionaries” are willing to admit, although the historical record is indisputable on this question.

I confess that I was not that enthusiastic about tackling Dr Marable’s 600 page tome because of some of the quotes that I have heard from it.  Like the claim that Malcolm X was the most important black man of the twentieth century.  That claim is prime faice nonsense!!!!!  There is no objective measure by which one can demonstrate that Malcolm X was more important than Martin Luther King, and no professional historian weighing the evidence of the two men’s careers would ever make such a statement.

Among historians such extravagant claims in the absence of compelling evidence to support them are routinely dismissed as “special pleading.”   In whose estimate is Marable’s claim regarded as a fact?  Certainly not the people who put their lives on the line in the bloody struggles that transformed the South and this nation!!!

That struggle ended the legal system of apartheid that I grew up under, opened up the professions so that the militant black professorate who now scoff at that movement in proclaiming the virtues of Malcom X could exist, and put a black family in the White House.  On my score card Malcolm’s achievements do not even come close to Martins – no contest!!!

Furthermore, if you compare Malcolm with his counterparts who were engaged in real revolutionary struggles such as Dr. Franz Fanon, Nelson Mandela, Sekou Toure, Kwame Nkrumah, et al he sounds positively naïve…a babe in the woods.  For instance Dr. Fanon, who literally wrote the book on the function of violence in mass transformative movements with revolutionary objectives, said that the establishment of an Islamic state in the twentieth would be “a return to primitive Medievalism” at the same time as Malcolm saw it as something African Americans should aspire to in our struggle to create an advanced revolutionary society.

The truth is that Malcolm X was just beginning to develop an understanding of world politics in general and revolutionary politics in particular.  All one need do to understand how little Malcolm X understood about the implications of his own preachment about “Nationalism” “capitalism” and armed struggle is to read his contemporary Harold Cruse, especially the essay “On the Intellectuals and Force and Violence.”

Dr. Franz Fanon

A Real Revolutionary/Activist Intellectual

Harold Cruse 

A far deeper radical thinker than Malcolm X 

One the critical points Cruse makes in this essay – which is contained in his canonical text, “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual” – is that the black people who actually did pick up guns to oppose white violence in the South were neither Muslims nor Black Nationalist.  For instance Robert Williams – whom all the northern nationalist revolutionaries latched onto as their symbol of the quintessential black revolutionary because he resisted the Klan with guns – was an ex-Marine, and President of the Monroe north Carolina branch of the NAACP.

Furthermore, the only organization that took up the responsibility of defending Civil Rights workers in the Deep South from Klan violence was a group of staunch churchmen The Deacons for Justice! Malcolm X was around when these things were happening, but he never joined in these efforts.  Instead, the NOI played off their inactivity by denigrating the goals of the Civil rights movement as misguided.

The Deacons were led by Robert Hicks, a former star football player in high school and an all-black semi-pro league. Hicks was a leader of the NAACP and headed his all black segregated paper mill workers union.  He was active in fighting for voter’s rights as head of the Civic and Voters league.  And of course, he was a deacon in the church.

Hicks was not only a great husband and father to his own children; he was a father figure to all the children in his neighborhood who collectively called him “Dad.”  In other words he was a solid American citizen! In all of this Robert Hicks is characteristic of all the men who actually took up arms against racist white aggression.  Malcolm X only hurled threats at whites from the safe precints of the north, and he had as many body guards around him as the US President when he did it.

The truth is that most of the movement Malcolm X stood on the sidelines up North and denounced the brave struggles of black southerners led by the preachers in the Southern Christian Leadership Council.    And he was very ashamed of the role he had played in his last days.

 Robert and Mable Williams: Real Warriors!
 Where was Malcolm X?
A Movie Reenactment of the Deacon;s Stand
The real thing was even more dramatic 

Hence Marable’s assessment of Malcolm’s importance is embarrassing hyperbole!   Yet even this is not enough for the hero worshipping haigiographers like Leroi Jones aka Amiri Baraka, who has attacked Dr. Marable because he said “Malcolm X was not a historian.”  To anybody that has the slightest understanding as to what the art and science of historical writing is, that was a perfunctory statement that borders on the banal.

Not only was Malcolm not a “historian,” which is someone who composes an original narrative about past events from primary documents, he was not even a good history teacher; which is someone who teaches the texts composed by historians.  In fact, Malcolm’s lack of historical understanding led an entire generation of black nationalists, and radicals of various persuasions, dangerously astray on a critical issue.

It was Malcolm’s thesis about the “House Negro” and the “Field Negro” that led the radicals down the dangerous path of anointing the least educated ghetto elements among us as the natural leaders of the revolution.  This resulted in what I call “the romance of the lumpen” which began with RAM and reached the height of absurdity in the Black Panther Party of Oakland.

Eldridge Cleaver: Minister of Information 

A Lumpen Psuedo-intellectual and BPP Icon 

This was a giant step backward for the radical tradition among Afro-Americans. It was a dramatic retrogression from the black Marxists of earlier decades, who were sober intellectuals and disciplined workers with solid personal values, good work habits and a willingness to study complex theories of politics and economics. They aspired to the highest achievements of mankind under the assumption that nothing was too good for the working class, that these achievements were the heritage of all mankind!

They understood that not only could the Lumpen-Proletariat not lead a revolution; they couldn’t even be organized. They were in fact dangerous to a revolutionary movement because their “street hustler” values predisposes them to petty criminality and thus places them in a position to be arrested and turned into informers against the movement in order to avoid incarceration.  All of these things came to pass in the black radical movement as we recruited these criminal types.

We looked not to previous militants like Paul Robeson, Ben Davis, William L. Patterson, Harry Heywood; people with a wealth of experience in organizing a radical revolutionary movement, seasoned veterans who could have steered us away from self-destructive actions, in favor of people who didn’t have a clue about what is required to make revolutionary movement in an advanced capitalist state…people like Malcolm X.  As the eminent historian Dr. Gerald Horne has pointed out: The rise of Malcolm X was only possible because the FBI had destroyed the real black revolutionaries in the 1950’s, thus creating a vacuum of militant leadership which Malcolm X filled.

It is long past time for the surviving elders of the Black Liberation Movement of the last half of the twentieth century to fess up and admit that we were wrong; not compound our blunder and mislead another generation of black youth’s by trying to make Malcolm X into something more than he was. Chanting the silly mantra that had Malcolm lived he would have had the answers to the present crisis that confronts us.

At the time of his death Malcolm X was a confused and demoralized man desperately looking for a viable program, and was murdered by the thugs he had trained.  The ultimate irony is that he said on the record “If somebody was saying the things I’m saying about Elijah Muhammad and I didn’t personally know that it was true, I’d kill them myself!”  So he died by the rules he lived by.  Thus the claim that “he died for us” is a far more fitting eulogy for Dr. King…one could argue that Malcolm X died from his own folly.

Malcolm After the Gunmen Opened Fire in Audibon Ballroom

Murdered by Assasins he trained: An enduring tragedy

Four Revolutionaries Who Survived

Playthell, John Bracy, Dr. Muhammad Ahmed aka Max Stanford and Askia Muhammad Ture

Note: Between the four men in this picture are founders of the Revolutionary Action Movement, Black Studies  in the University, and the Black arts Movement.  All of us began in the Civil rights Movement, and evolved into radicals as the white resistance stiffened.  We were all discipline activist intellectuals who  read all of the canonical texts on the mordern world revolution.  And we all personally knew Malcolm X, much beter than we knew Dr. King.  And we all shared  Malcolm X’s views over Dr. Kings.  Hence my position in this essay is the result of long and sober reflection.


Below are links to video clips from speeches by Dr. King and Malcolm X.  I have chosen clips where they both speak on the same topic: the importance of self-esteem.  Listen to the difference in how they approach the subject.  While both agree on the importance of self-esteem Malcom’s description of how black folk should control business in the black community, which he saw as a revelation,  was old news to Dr. King, who was from Atlanta; which enjoyed a booming black business community…as did the black communities in Florida where I grew up.  The fact is that Malcom X, and black nationalist in general, have a nihilistic view of the Afro-American experience, whereas the Civil Rights movemet was driven by a heroic optimis!  That;s whay all the great gains for black Americans were produced by the Civil Rights Movement!

Double Click to hear Dr. King

Double Click to hear Malcolm X

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

Janurary 17, 2012

A Mighty Tree Has Fallen In Harlem!

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , , , on December 28, 2009 by playthell


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.

  The Lion In Winter


 We May  Never See His Like Again!





Playthell Benjamin

Commentaries On the Times

 Harlem New York

December 28, 2009