Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Capitol Offenses: Desegregating the Seat of Arkansas Government, 1964-1965

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Capitol Offenses: Desegregating the Seat of Arkansas Government, 1964-1965

Article excerpt

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! " A spirited exchange about the appli- cability of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to the cafeteria ensued. Sutton was then asked by an unidentified man to leave the premises. When asked for a second time, he departed, stopping by Bryant's office on the way out to report what had happened.1

Ozell Sutton was a native Arkansan born and reared in a sharecrop- ping family just outside of Gould in the delta. In his twenties, Sutton ventured to Little Rock in search of a better life and initially worked as a dishwasher in the Capital Hotel. He attended Little Rock's Philander Smith College and, when he was close to graduation in 1950, the Ar- kansas Democrat offered him a job. Looking to make inroads against its competitor, the Arkansas Gazette, the Democrat hired Sutton to report on black community issues in hopes of increasing its circulation among Af- rican Americans. The first African-American reporter to work for a white newspaper in Little Rock, Sutton stayed at the Democrat for seven years. He was also involved in supporting the Little Rock Nine through their ordeal during the 1957 Little Rock school crisis.

Sutton later took a job as Winthrop Rockefeller's butler at Winrock Farms on Petit Jean Mountain just outside of Morrilton, about sixty miles northwest of Little Rock. Rockefeller, from one of America's wealthiest families, had relocated to Arkansas in 1953.2 Sutton then moved back to the city to work for the Little Rock Housing Authority before returning to Petit Jean for a while as public affairs coordinator for special events at Winrock Farms. In the early 1960s, he became associate director of the Arkansas Council on Human Relations (ACHR), an interracial civil rights organization affiliated with the Southern Regional Council (SRC) in At- lanta. In 1964, Sutton took a leave of absence from the ACHR to run the AVP, an affiliate of the Voter Education Project, which Arkansas native Wiley Branton ran out of Atlanta under the tax-exempt auspices of the SRC. It was in that capacity that Sutton visited the Capitol for what turned out to be a fateful encounter. It led to a lawsuit and to some of the tensest standoffs between demonstrators and state troopers and the police in Little Rock during the 1960s.3

The events that unfolded in the struggle to desegregate the Capitol cafeteria vividly illustrate the dynamic interplay between legislation and nonviolent direct action in the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s. Much of the African-American struggle for freedom and equality in the 1940s and 1950s had been spearheaded by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and focused on the courts, culminating in 195 4's landmark Brown v. Board of Education school de- segregation decision.4 Although the NAACP and court action remained an important element of the civil rights movement during the 1960s, they were increasingly supplanted in the headlines by a new brand of nonvi- olent direct action that sought to dramatically clarify the moral issues involved and to hasten the speed of redress. …

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