Early life, military service, education, and family
Sutton was born in San Antonio, Texas, the last of fifteen children born to Samuel ("S.J.") Sutton and Lillian Sutton.
His father, born during the time  of slavery and an early civil-rights activist, was one of the first blacks in Bexar County, Texas, and used the initials "S.J." for fear it would be shortened to Sambo. His father was a principal of a segregated high school in San Antonio and his mother was a teacher. In addition to being a full-time educator, S.J. farmed, sold real estate and owned a mattress factory, funeral home and skating rink.
All of Sutton's siblings graduated from college. His brothers included G.J. Sutton, who became the first black elected official in San Antonio, and Oliver Sutton, who became a judge on the New York Supreme Court (Manhattan).
Young Sutton milked cows and rode around San Antonio with his father in the same Studebaker vehicle[clarification needed] that was used for funerals and distributing milk to the poor. He liked to attach strings to cans to pretend to be a radio broadcaster.
At age twelve, he stowed away on a passenger train to New York City, New York, where he slept under a sign on 155th Street in the Harlem neighborhood of the Manhattan borough of the city. Far from being angry, his family regarded it as an adventure.
His family was committed to civil rights, and he bristled at prejudice. At age thirteen, while passing out leaflets in an all-white neighborhood for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he was beaten by a policeman.
Sutton had joined the Boy Scouts of America and attained the rank of Eagle Scout in 1936 and was recognized with the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award as an adult. Sutton stated that scouting was a key factor in shaping his life.
He and Leatrice Sutton were married in 1943.
He took up stunt-flying on the barnstorming circuit, but gave it up after a friend crashed. Later, during World War II, he served as an intelligence officer with the Tuskegee Airmen — the popular name of a group of African American pilots who flew with distinction during World War II as the 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces. He won combat stars in the Italian and Mediterranean theaters.
Sutton attended[clarification needed] Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, Texas; the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama; and the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia. He went on to attend Brooklyn Law School in Brooklyn, a borough of New York City, New York.