The name: The Midnight March.
The year: 1966, when the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans dominated the news and Puerto Ricans — then the city’s dominant Latino group — engaged in a parallel push for equality.
The conspirators: Harlem’s legendary Gang of Four — then-Assembly members David Dinkins, Basil Paterson, Charles Rangel and Percy Sutton.
The goal: Convincing Assembly Speaker Anthony Travia to move a bill that would open The City University of New York to impoverished and academically ill-prepared minority students. Without it, they stood little chance of entering — much less graduating from — a college. “We wanted to create a program so that the injured of our society could occupy positions of power,” Sutton later recalled.
The achievement: At the historic DeWitt Clinton Hotel, across the street from the Capitol in Albany, the Assembly’s Black, Puerto Rican and Hispanic Caucus surrounded Travia, “sitting in a small room, some on the floor, some on the radiator, some on the side of the bed, led by Percy Sutton and Shirley Chisholm,” Dinkins later recalled. “And we said, ‘Mr. Speaker, we’re politicians, too, and we need to take something back home.’ ”
Phrasing their blunt message with a gentleman’s delicacy in his retelling, Dinkins added, “We explained to him that there would be the inability of him to be re-elected speaker if our votes were not available.
That night the SEEK program was born.”
Sutton’s leadership has been widely recognized. The Legislature last year named the SEEK program after him and in October CUNY held a glittering celebration of him and the program at City College’s Great Hall.
The country’s first such initiative, SEEK — the Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge — has since helped an estimated 50,000 CUNY students earn baccalaureate degrees.
Since the Gang of Four cannily crafted the legislation without mentioning race, from the start it attracted students from all ethnicities. Today, SEEK’s 11,000 participants come from every corner of the globe — like the rest of CUNY’s student body.
SEEK’s success later led the state to create the Education Opportunity Program for SUNY and Higher Education Opportunity Program for New York’s private colleges. Similar efforts followed around the country.
Basil Paterson, a former Manhattan Borough President, has called SEEK “the single piece of legislation that has done more to break the cycle of poverty for the disadvantaged of this town than anything else that we may have done.”
Passing the SEEK law and having it signed by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who vastly expanded public higher education, was one thing. Implementing it was another.
SEEK already was in operation at City College, which had adapted a 1964 community college pilot called College Discovery that still supports academically shaky students at the associate-degree level.
But the program faced resistance. As former CUNY Chancellor Albert Bowker put it, “The institutions seemed to be catering to primarily white students who were in the upper part of their graduating class in high school. Nowhere was it more dramatic than at City College, sitting in the middle of Harlem as a primarily white, heavily Jewish institution.” Bowker dispatched Senior Vice Chancellor Julius C.C. Edelstein to sell the program to college presidents and faculties.
Edmund L. Volpe, former chair of City College’s English Department and later president of the College of Staten Island, said faculty “began to recognize that we were teachers, not simply professors of literature, or scholars of literature …. We had a responsibility in the classroom to the students who were sitting there before us, and we had to reach them. And reaching them was a new educational experience for the people in our college and throughout the University.”
Making SEEK work meant new instructional techniques and approaches to counseling and supporting learners – thrusts that CUNY continues to refine to this day.
At the recent CUNY SEEK celebration at City College, Assemblyman Keith Wright (D-Harlem) told the crowd that soon after Sutton died in December 2009, former Deputy Speaker Arthur O. Eve (D-Buffalo) phoned and all but ordered him to rename SEEK after Sutton. “When Arthur speaks, you listen,” Wright recounted. (The Higher Education Opportunity Program for private colleges, enacted in 1969, now bears Eve’s name.) With support from Sen. Dale Volker (R-Depew), the bill cleared the Legislature.
What has SEEK meant to students? Ask Jeffrey McClellan, now a Baruch College sophomore with a 3.8 GPA. Speaking at the celebration at City College, he said: “As a first generation college student,” he knew “the transition from high school to college is a tough one. No one in your family truly understands the struggle to compete to enter the college atmosphere and the drive that it takes to stay. The staff of the Percy Ellis Sutton SEEK Program understands this fight and is willing to fight this fight with you.”
Or ask state Sen. Adriano Espaillat (D-Manhattan), who met Sutton long after his tenure as Manhattan Borough President (1966-1973), when Sutton had become a prominent businessman and the first African-American to own radio stations in the city (WLIB-AM and WBLS-FM).
“I told him how the SEEK program changed my life. It didn’t necessarily open the door to higher education — it kicked it down! What does a country boy from the Dominican Republic have to say about this? I couldn’t have graduated from Queens had it not been for the SEEK program,” Espaillat said, nor “have the command of this language.”
Sutton’s granddaughter, Keisha Sutton-James, vice president of Inner City Broadcast Holdings, said Sutton was proudest of having been Malcolm X’s attorney, rescuing the Apollo theater from oblivion, beginning the revitalization of 125th St. in Harlem, winning the NAACP’s Spingarn Award for outstanding achievement and writing the SEEK law. “He put so much energy into trying to improve himself and trying to improve the lives of his people, the community and, most importantly, those who were underserved and who did not have the opportunities that he had,” she said.