Ozell Sutton, one of the Arkansas-born drum majors for civil rights, died Saturday in Atlanta at 90, the AP reported.
He held a Congressional Gold Medal as one of the first African-Americans to serve in the Marine Corps. He was a retired community relations director for the Justice Department in Atlanta.
His Arkansas past is well-remembered by the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Notably, the Gould native was the first black reporter to work for a white-owned newspaper in the state when he was hired by the Arkansas Democrat in 1950, after he graduated from Philander Smith College.
It was at the Democrat that he began to focus his energies on achieving racial justice. He also quarreled with his editors over how to address African Americans in the newspaper’s articles. Sutton wanted black men and women to be referred as “Mr.” and “Mrs.”—just as whites were. Eventually, Sutton’s editors relented.
He was on hand at Central High in 1957 and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. From 1961 to 1966 he was assistant director of the Arkansas Council on Human Relations. He later served as an assistant to Republican Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, leaving Arkansas to work for the Justice Department in the early 1970s. He was a mediator in many of the familiar racial hot spots in succeeding years.
A notable episode in Sutton’s time in Arkansas occurred in 1964. His effort finally broke the color line at the State Capitol cafeteria. It had been turned into a private club to avoid service to blacks. Turned away in 1964, he and the NAACP sued. Violent reaction broke out in subsequent student efforts to use the cafeteria. Finally, in April 1965 a federal judge ruled that barring Sutton was unconstitutional.
On April 29, Secretary of State Kelly Bryant announced that the cafeteria would reopen to the public the following morning at 7:00 a.m. The next day, Sutton returned alone to the cafeteria where he had been refused service ten months earlier. He joined the line, collected his food, and ate lunch without incident.
Here’s a longer account of that episode from an Arkansas Times article by UALR’s John Kirk.
Kirk, in another account of the episode, provided this detail on the beginning of the fight for desegregation:
On Wednesday, July 15, 1964, Ozell Sutton went by Secretary of State Kelly Bryant’s office at the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock to col- lect copies of maps and current voter registration rolls for his work on the Arkansas Voter Project (AVP). He finished around lunchtime and headed down to the basement cafeteria to get some food. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which required the desegregation of public facilities and accommo- dations, had become law just two weeks earlier on July 2. Sutton entered the food line, picked up a tray and silverware, and was perusing the salads when cafeteria manager S. Edris Tyer, who had operated the business on a lease from the state since 1947 (first with her late husband and for the past seven years on her own), approached Sutton and told him, “We don’t serve Negras here!” Sutton recalled that he quipped, “That’s all right lady, I don’t eat them either, so you don’t need to serve me any Negras. You need to serve me some roast beef!”
That would take nine months to be served.
A biography of Sutton at the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame writes that he served as a “decoy” to distract the mob when nine black students attempted to desegregate Central High School in 1957, their entry finally achieved only with federal court and troop assistance. Ebony magazine regularly listed him among the 100 most influential African-Americans.