Thousands of people gathered at Riverside Church in Manhattan to celebrate the life of Percy Sutton, the pioneering civil rights attorney who fought as a Tuskegee airmen, once represented Malcolm X, rescued the Apollo Theater and was the dean of Harlem political world.
Speaking to the people gathered in the church's pews, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called Sutton "one of the nation's true heroes."
"I admired, respected and worked for him," Attorney General Eric Holder said of Sutton who died on Dec. 26, 2009 in Manhattan at the age of 89. . "The opportunities given to my generation were paid for by his."
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. "You've paved the way, Mr. Chairman. Be at rest."
Sutton's granddaughter Keisha Sutton-James said, "He was and is my hero."
Also attending were Rep. Charles Rangel, Gov. David Paterson, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sen. Chuck Schumer and former Mayor David Dinkins, who credited Sutton for defining black political power throughout the state
"When history speaks of Percy Sutton, it will speak of a dynamic man," said Dinkins.
"He was more than the engineer of the Gang of Four, he was our inspiration, our mentor," Dinkins said of the name given to himself, Sutton, Congressman Charles Rangel and Basil Paterson. "We were four and now we our three"
"Had there been no Chairman Sutton," said Dinkins, the city's only black mayor. "There certainly would not have been a Mayor Dinkins"
Baseball legend Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel, arrived early at the packed church and appeared visibly shaken. She said her family loved and admired Sutton, who was her son's godfather. City Councilwoman Inez Dickens praised Sutton as a man who left an indelible mark on many areas of human endeavor.
"Today the village of Harlem celebrates the life of Percy Sutton," said Dickens. "Unmatched statesman, business acumen unsurpassed, aviator, defiant, civil rights champion -- rest in peace Mr. chairman. You.have served us well.
After the service, the funeral procession will stop briefly in front of The Apollo Theater, which Sutton bought in 1981 and renovated. Operations of the landmark theater were later taken over by a nonprofit foundation.
"The Apollo and its staff stand on the shoulders of Mr. Sutton as the theater continues to flourish," Jonelle Procope, president and CEO of Apollo Theater Foundation Inc., said upon news of his death. "(He) will be greatly missed and will always be an integral part of the Apollo legacy."
The son of a slave, Sutton became a fixture on 125th Street in Harlem after moving to New York City following his service with the famed Tuskegee Airmen in World War II.
The consummate politician, Sutton served in the New York State Assembly before taking over as Manhattan borough president in 1966, becoming the highest-ranking black elected official in the state.
Sutton also mounted unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. Senate and mayor of New York, and served as political mentor for Rev. Jackson's two presidential bids.