By Maynard Eaton
Ozell Sutton was a unique, unsung and largely unknown civil rights leader whose work in The Movement was mostly as an undercover operative. The 90-year old Little Rock, Arkansas native died recently following a rich and robust life of pioneering activism.
Sutton was one of the first African American Marines to fight in World War II, an organizer of the “Little Rock Nine” school integration struggle, a special assistant to Arkansas Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, co-founder of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, President of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, friend and cohort of Martin Luther King Jr. and for 30 years the U.S. Justice Department’s Community Relations Service director in the conflict-prone Southeast region.
“He was good; he was very good,” says Thomas Battles, a co-worker in the Community Relations Service. “In 1994 he received the Attorney General’s Award for Exceptional Service. Working with Ozell was like a ministry. He would say that once you enrolled in the struggle against racism you can never return. We stopped many riots in America because of Ozell Sutton.”
He was at the Edmund Pettis Bridge during the first Selma to Montgomery March where Congressman John Lewis, the late Rev. Hosea Williams and the late Amelia Boynton Robinson were savagely beaten by police in 1965. He marched with Dr. King in the March on Washington in 1963, and he was also with King at the Lorraine Motel when the Southern Christian Leadership Council [SCLC] President was assassinated in 1968.
“I heard the shot ring out that killed Dr. King,” Sutton is quoted recalling in his obituary. Sutton was in room 308 and King in 306. According to his obituary, he looked out of the window and saw King’s body on the shared balcony. “It was a moment that changed everything, and made his resolve for justice even more resolute.”
One current SCLC official likened Sutton’s role in the civil rights movement to that of a “good double agent” because he worked with civil rights activists and for the U.S. Justice Department at the same time.
“He was a man who was determined to make a change, and he didn’t mind putting his life on the line,” says SCLC foot soldier Rev. Ben Stallmacher. “He literally put his life on the line without the backing of the civil rights community.”
Ambassador Andrew Young, who eulogized Sutton before a crowd of several hundred mourners at Cascade United Methodist Church, says he was an uncommon and unheralded civil and human rights giant.
“He was totally behind the scenes, not wanting any credit but having contacts from the streets to the Rockefeller’s to the Johnson’s,” Young recalls. “He was always there. You never had to call him, you never had to ask him, he knew what he had to do. He was an extremely significant figure. We only know the tip of the iceberg about The Movement. The real Movement was underwater and behind the scenes. And, he was part of the real Movement. He was one of the people that never get any credit and don’t want any. They just want to do what the Lord told them to do.”
Dr. C.T. Vivian, Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree, says Sutton saved his life in St. Augustine with a covert warning that the home where he was sleeping was about to be firebombed.
“Sutton had a special place because of his work with some important politicians.” says Vivian. “He came through a different route. He had a whole bevy of guys across the country that he could plug into, and as a result he got things done that other people couldn’t do. He knew power and they knew they could trust him.”
In 2010 Philander Smith College established the Ozell Sutton Medal of Justice award at its Social Justice Institute, and in 2015 Alpha Phi Alpha established the Ozell Sutton Leadership and Service Scholarship endowment with a $50,000 donation to Philander Smith in his honor.
“It’s a day of service and an endowed scholarship in his name,” explains Roderick Smothers, president of Philander Smith College. “Ozell Sutton personifies our mission statement which is to educate young folks and send them out into the world and make it better. His life was spent making the world better for other people, and he did it in so many places. He was our international ambassador.”
As a young Marine, Sutton trained at the segregated U.S. Marine Corps boot camp at Montford Point, North Carolina. Before an Atlanta audience in 2001, the baritone voiced Sutton spoke poignantly and passionately about fighting the Japanese and racism.
“You can’t believe what it is like to fight for your country and be humiliated by your country at the same time.”