This Day in History

July 15, 1964: Ozell Sutton Denied Service at Arkansas Capitol Cafeteria 

Time Periods: People’s Movement: 1961 - 1974
Themes: African American, Laws & Citizen Rights, Racism & Racial Identity

Ozell Sutton. Source: UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture, National Dunbar Historical Collections.

On July 15, 1964 Ozell Sutton was denied service at the Arkansas Capitol cafeteria after visiting the Capitol building to collect voter registration materials.

Sutton, a civil voting rights activist, was one of the first African American members of the U.S. Marine Corp and veteran a of WWII. He was also the first person to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas.

This violated the federal law that businesses operating in conjunction with state entities could not discriminate against Black customers. It also violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which passed two weeks earlier.

Read more in an Arkansas Times (February, 2013) article by John Kirk below:

After gathering his materials, Sutton headed to the Capitol cafeteria in the basement of the building to grab some food. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which required the desegregation of public facilities and accommodations, had become law just two weeks earlier on July 2.

Sutton entered the food line and picked up a tray and silverware. Capitol cafeteria manager Edris Tyer, who had operated the business on a lease from the state since 1947, approached Sutton and told him “we don’t serve Negras here!” Sutton recalled quipping in reply, “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!” Sutton was asked to leave the premises.

. .  .[A week later], the Capitol cafeteria was incorporated as a private, nonprofit club, with a token $1 membership fee.

. . . Sutton, backed by NAACP attorneys, filed a class action against the Capitol Club in the U.S. District Court.

Students from Philander Smith College, Arkansas Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) project volunteers, and ministers organized protests of the cafeteria. State police attacked the protestors with riot sticks and a bystander hurled a canister of mustard gas.

As a result of all the public attention to the violent response to the protests, the court was pressured to make a ruling. It was determined in April of 1965 “that it was a straightforward denial of the Fourteenth Amendment mandate against government denying equal protection under the law. They ordered the Capitol Club to integrate and the defendants to pay the costs of the lawsuit.”

Ozell Sutton continued to be a civil rights activist. Here he is speaking at a press conference in Atlanta, Georgia, Oct. 29, 1980. Click image for more information.