Sutton was one of the first African American members of the U.S. Marine Corps and veteran of WWII. As a voting rights activist, he worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas.
Denying him service 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.”
#tdih 1964 WWII vet and SNCC voting rights activist Ozell Sutton was denied service at the Arkansas Capitol cafeteria. This violated federal law for businesses operating in conjunction with state entities & Civil Rights Act of 1964 (passed 2 weeks before).https://t.co/5H0Gi7Agy0
— Zinn Ed Project (@ZinnEdProject) July 15, 2020
Find related resources below about SNCC and also from Arkansas history.