Human Rights Activist | Class of 2001
One of the most important Arkansas political activists at the height of the civil rights struggle during the 1950s and 1960s, Ozell Sutton was a key player at many of the movement’s most critical moments—both in the state and throughout the South. He was present at watershed events that have impacted our nation’s history, including having been with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when King was murdered on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was also a trailblazer in Arkansas race relations and became the first black newspaper reporter to work for a white-owned newspaper when he went to work in 1950 as a staff writer for the Arkansas Democrat.
Ozell Sutton was born in 1925 just outside the town of Gould, Arkansas. His mother, Lula Belle, was a widow who raised the family on her own. As a sharecropper, she grew cotton to provide for her six sons and two daughters. Sutton’s family eventually moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he attended Dunbar High School. In 1950, he graduated from Philander Smith College in Little Rock with a degree in political science and took a job with the Democrat.
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.
Sutton was at Central High School when the Little Rock Nine entered during the school desegregation crisis that gripped the city in 1957. In 1962, he received an honorary doctorate from Philander Smith in recognition of his political activism in the civil rights movement. The following year, he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and thousands of others in a historic march on Washington, D.C., that helped influence the federal government to play a larger role in race relations at the local level. In 1965, he was with Dr. King for the march in Selma, Alabama. During these years, he was also relocation and rehabilitation supervisor for the Little Rock Housing Authority.
From 1961 to 1966, Sutton served as assistant director of the Arkansas Council on Human Relations (ACHR), an organization that helped peacefully integrate businesses and public facilities across the state. Under Sutton’s leadership, the ACHR acted as an important liaison between Arkansans and civil rights activists from outside the state. Most notably, Sutton forged a partnership with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), whose idealistic young organizers worked in some of the state’s most racially divided areas to help register black Arkansans to vote.
Following the assassination of King in 1968, Sutton served as special assistant to Republican governor Winthrop Rockefeller, a position he held until 1970. Under Gov. Rockefeller, Sutton advised on racial matters and sought to ease racial tensions between black Arkansans and local police. In the early 1970s, Sutton left Arkansas for Atlanta, Georgia, where he began working as a field representative for the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service. In 1972, he was appointed director of the Community Relations Service in the southeast region, a position he held until his retirement in 2003. At the Justice Department, Sutton acted as a mediator in some of the country’s most violent racial conflicts, including the riots that erupted in Los Angeles, California, following the verdicts in the Rodney King beating case. Through this work, he gained acclaim within the black community for his ability to handle high-pressure situations calmly, and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Award by the Department of Justice in 1994.
Sutton repeatedly made Ebony magazine’s annual list of the “100 Most Influential African Americans.” He also was awarded the Medallion of Freedom by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Sutton served as the national president of several organizations, such as the National Assault on Illiteracy and the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., and was a founding member of the executive board of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and a co-chairperson of the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition. After his retirement, Sutton—who resided in Atlanta—spent much of his time lecturing around the country, relating his experiences from the frontlines of the civil rights movement. In 2009, he published “From Yonder to Here”: A Memoir of Dr. Ozell Sutton.
Sutton died on December 19, 2015, in Atlanta.