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A tribute to Percy E. Sutton:
Leader helped bring KILI Radio to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

By Mark Tilsen, Sr., president of Native American Natural Foods

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Percy E. Sutton, who displayed fierce intelligence and exquisite polish in becoming one of the nation's most prominent black political and business leaders, died Saturday, The Associated Press reported. He was 89.

As we celebrate the extraordinary life of Percy Sutton, the great civil rights fighter and business leader (see The New York Times for obituary), there is a little piece of history from South Dakota that I think needs to be added to the pile of accolades that are now being bestowed upon this great man. With no press, fanfare or grandiose announcement, Mr. Sutton helped to bring KILI Radio to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

It was 1981. I was working as the first development director for Lakota Communication Inc. Jerry Kupfer was the head engineer for Inner City Broadcasting and a volunteer helping us to build what would later become the first 100,000-watt community-controlled Native American radio station in the country. He invited me to New York City and set up a short meeting with Mr. Sutton, whom they all called the Chairman of the Board, to ask for help.

I had a little slideshow on the needs of Pine Ridge that I had worked hard on. About three minutes into my presentation, Mr. Sutton asked that the light be turned on, and he most politely and articulately explained: "We know all people need their own voice, which in these times, means to control their own media. That is why we are building radio stations in our communities. We know Native Americans have the same needs. What we need from you is how we can help?"

I told him that we needed a lawyer who could challenge the FCC for not assigning frequencies to Indian reservations and we need more engineering help and training. Mr. Sutton said, "OK, done." But theses were not empty words, like so many of the promises we had all heard in the past.

Over the next 20 years, KILI Radio was represented by great FCC lawyers. And over all those years, we never got one, single bill. Mr. Sutton encouraged his engineers to help us. His son, Pierre, got personally involved, and many of their on-air personalities visited the reservation. Mr. Sutton supported The Broadcast of Brotherhood by dedicating an entire Thanksgiving Day broadcast to helping KILI stay on the air. This was an extraordinary event in which some of the poorest people from New York City would send small donations to support KILI Radio on the Pine Ridge Reservation. It was a great event that went on for many, many years and raised tens of thousands of dollars over the years.

I only met Mr. Sutton a few times. One time, he joked with me that he was very surprised I did not ask him for money at our first meeting and it would have been a lot cheaper for him if I had. But he was obviously proud that Inner City Broadcasting had been able to provide such needed and effective help.

Mr. Sutton was the kind of leader we need more of today. When he saw the chance to help, even though he knew what we were asking was difficult and would take a long-term commitment and a lot of resources, he just simply said, "OK, done" and he meant it!

For more about Mark Tilsen, Sr.: Biography

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