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The fight to desegregate the Arkansas Capitol cafeteria 

It took protests and the court to make the Capitol follow law.

click to enlarge Ozell Sutton image
  • Courtesy UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture National Dunbar Historical Collections.
  • Ozell Sutton

On Wednesday, July 15, 1964, Ozell Sutton went to collect voter registration materials from Secretary of State Kelly Bryant's office at the Arkansas State Capitol. Sutton, from a sharecropping family in Gould, was head of the Arkansas Voter Project, an affiliate of the region-wide Voter Education Project that was being run out of Atlanta by former Arkansan Wiley Branton under the auspices of the Southern Regional Council.

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.

On Tuesday, July 21, the Capitol cafeteria was incorporated as a private, nonprofit club, with a token $1 membership fee. Businesses across the South were trying to reinvent themselves as private clubs in hopes of evading the 1964 Civil Rights Act. However, in the cases of Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States and Katzenbach v. McClung, both decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in December 1964, the court upheld the act's contention that the U.S. Constitution's commerce clause forbade racial discrimination even in privately run businesses.

In fact, the case of the Capitol cafeteria was even more straightforward. The Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause, which forbade government from engaging in racial discrimination but was understood not to cover private businesses, already covered the cafeteria. The courts had previously upheld that businesses operating in conjunction with state entities could not discriminate against black customers. On this basis, Sutton had the right to eat at the Capitol cafeteria even before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The act only served to confuse the issue at hand.

Precisely what the change in status of the cafeteria meant in terms of its racial policy was soon revealed. On Thursday, July 30, an African-American woman, Barbara Leary, was refused service at the Capitol Club. As Leary entered someone yelled, "Who is checking cards?" Manager Edris Tyer told Leary that "colored people were not being served here now" because it was a members only club. Leary asked, "What can I do to become a member?" She was told that the cafeteria was "being run by a corporation" and that she could not join.

The following day a uniformed guard, 71-year-old Jack Morgan, a former North Little Rock patrolman and a Pulaski County deputy sheriff, was hired for $10 a day to sit outside the door of the club and check membership cards. A bell button was placed outside when Morgan was not on duty and the door was locked. A new sign appeared on the cafeteria door reading "Capitol Club, Inc." with, in tiny letters underneath, "Members Only."

On Wednesday, Sept. 16, Sutton, backed by NAACP attorneys, filed a class action against the Capitol Club in the U.S. District Court. Sutton maintained that the cafeteria had a "long established" policy of refusing to serve blacks.

Yet the legal delays continued. Meanwhile, events outside the courtroom had a more dramatic impact. In January 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. launched a campaign for voting rights in Selma, Ala. The campaign culminated in a showdown between civil rights marchers and Alabama state troopers on Edmund Pettus Bridge. When the marchers refused to disperse, state troopers plowed into them on horseback, using billy clubs, tear gas and bullwhips on them. The violence, broadcast on prime time national television networks that evening, provoked a national outcry. The very same week that Selma's "Bloody Sunday" took place, Little Rock experienced its own, as the Arkansas Gazette called it, "hemi-demi-semi-pseudo Selma."

On Thursday, March 11, at around 11:45 a.m., a group of 32 people made up of Philander Smith College students and Arkansas Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) project volunteers tried to eat at the Capitol Club. Guard Morgan told them they could not enter without membership cards. The situation grew tense as Morgan told one demonstrator, "I'm going to bust you in the eye in about two minutes if you mess with me." A cafeteria employee asked Morgan, "You want me to call in some extra boys?" Morgan replied, "Well, I need them." Not long after, Maj. Mack Thompson, head of the State Police highway patrol division, arrived wearing civilian attire and a helmet. Four state troopers and Secretary of State Kelly Bryant followed closely by. Bryant told the students that they could not eat at the cafeteria since it was a private club.

When the students refused to move, Thompson told his men, "OK, move 'em outa here." The troopers formed a wedge and, according to SNCC volunteer Arlene Wilgoren, "approximately 15 or 20 troopers pushed, shoved, kicked, hit, slapped and threw bodies down the hall" into a small room where driver's licenses were sold.

A young white Pine Bluff Commercial reporter, Bob Lancaster (now a columnist with the Times), who was there to cover the story, also got caught up in the fray. The 21-year-old journalist was mistaken for a SNCC volunteer, grabbed around the neck by a state trooper, and shunted along with the rest of the pack. When he protested that he was not part of the group, a trooper slugged him in the mouth.

After being released, the students met SNCC volunteer Bill Hansen along with another group of students outside. They conferred about events at the Capitol Club and decided that they should still try to eat there. They re-entered the Capitol via the south side Seventh Street entrance. Hansen and another white SNCC volunteer, Nancy Stoller, led the group toward the stairwell. State troopers at the top of the stairs restrained most of the students. Ten made it past them into the basement where yet more state troopers confronted them. Hansen, Stoller and the others, were pushed back up the stairs. Hansen was hit over the head with a riot stick along the way.

More state troopers joined the melee at the top of the stairs. The students pulled a prone Hansen out of the scrimmage, into the hallway, and then outside into the rain. There, they made a pallet for him, covered him with their coats, and formed a cordon around him joining hands and singing "We Shall Overcome."

Around 15 helmeted state troopers with riot sticks, together with a State Police captain and lieutenant holding electric cattle prods, and a number of city policemen, stood under the portico nearby observing the scene. A bystander drummed up a chorus of "Dixie" in response to the students' rendition of "We Shall Overcome." Others yelled football chants and called the Hogs in an attempt to drown the students out. Five minutes later, Hansen was whisked away to Arkansas Baptist Hospital. Reportedly, State Police Director Col. Herman E. Lindsey thought his "troopers had handled the situation well."

Later that day, at 4 p.m., around 200 black and white marchers made up of SNCC volunteers and college and high school students arrived at the Capitol singing "We Shall Overcome." They waved placards reading, "Is This America or Russia?", "We Didn't Have Enough Blood in '57?" and "Alabama Sunday, Arkansas Today."

The Capitol doors were locked to prevent the students gaining entry. After singing more songs the marchers knelt in the rain at the foot of the Capitol steps and prayed. At 4:15 p.m., with the marchers still kneeling in prayer, around 30 state troopers walked up the Capitol steps in front of them and stood defiantly in the doorway. A handful of people, mostly FBI agents and newsmen, looked on. After 10 minutes, the state troopers left. Five minutes later, the students left too, vowing to return again the following day.

The next day at 1 p.m., 15 students arrived in cars. Jim Jones, Arkansas SNCC project director; Rev. Ben Grinage, Pine Bluff SNCC project director, and Anthony Hines, a Philander Smith student, led the group double file through the south entrance and down the stairway to the Capitol Club.

Guard Jack Morgan told them they could not enter without membership cards. Jones, Grinage and Hines debated with Morgan for 15 minutes, demanding to know under what law he was forbidding them entry. Tiring of the conversation, Morgan told them, "You'd better shut up. You've talked enough." He then shouted inside the cafeteria, "Is there anybody in there?" Secretary of State Bryant emerged from inside. Bryant insisted, "I must have the hall cleared," and signaled the police into action.

State Police Capt. R.E. Brown mobilized a number of his men outside the doorway of the cafeteria and ordered them to advance. The state police charged the students, jabbing at them with their riot sticks. Those at the front of the line were almost instantly knocked off their feet and those behind them fell in a domino effect. The police continued to advance, prodding, shoving and kicking the students as they went.

Bystanders at the back of the group also began to attack the demonstrators. One hurled a bottle of mustard gas at them. The volatile and highly corrosive liquid, used as a chemical weapon in World War I, quickly evaporated into choking and nauseating fumes. Everyone sought to escape as quickly as possible. White SNCC volunteer Howard Himmelbaum had mustard gas thrown directly on his back and was hospitalized. In a twist of fate, Himmelbaum later in life returned to the state and became office manager for Gov. Mike Beebe, working just a few feet away from where he had previously been attacked.

On Saturday, March 20, a group of Little Rock's black and white ministers met to discuss what action they should take over the ongoing demonstrations at the Capitol. They learned that there was going to be a policy change and that in the future demonstrators would be arrested rather than attacked. Though encouraged by the news, the ministers still decided to protest the continuing segregation at the Capitol and the police brutality against demonstrators. They planned to seek a meeting with Gov. Orval Faubus on Monday and debated whether or not they too should try to test Capitol Club facilities.

The escalating violence and the threat of an interracial protest from city ministers led to a further change of heart and policy. On Sunday, March 21, the day that national attention was focused on the beginning of another civil rights march in Selma, it was announced that the Capitol Club would close temporarily.

A group of 49 ministers led by white Episcopal Bishop Rev. Robert R. Brown, and including a dozen or so black ministers, marched on the Capitol on Monday, March 22. As they gathered outside at around 10 a.m., Gov. Faubus left the building to attend the dedication of a Jobs Corp Center in Hot Springs. Two of the ministers, Rev. Sam Allen, executive secretary of the Arkansas Council of Churches, and Rev. Henry L. Parker, an African American minister at St. Phillips Episcopal Church, went downstairs to the Capitol Club. When they got there, the door was locked. They knocked, and a voice shouted, "We're closed." After Allen and Parker reported back to the other ministers, the whole delegation headed to Faubus' office.

Clarence Thornbrough, Faubus' executive secretary and president of the Capitol Club, was there to receive them. He ushered the ministers into a conference room to talk. Brown told Thornbrough, "We respectfully petition the governor to consider the aspects of closing the cafeteria. And we ask him to reopen the cafeteria to all sorts and conditions of people." Brown then read out a written petition signed by all of the ministers before handing it to Thornbrough, asking him to tell "the governor that we the clergy are anxious to be of any service that we can." Afterward, Brown told reporters, "This is not an easy problem but we, the clergy, feel strongly on the matter."

The student and ministerial protests had the intended effect of oiling the wheels of justice. The very same day that the ministers turned up at the Capitol with their petition, federal Judge J. Smith Henley wrote to Sutton's and the Capitol Club's attorneys to set a trial date. On Monday, April 12, 1965, Henley handed down his decision in the case, ruling that it was a straightforward denial of the Fourteenth Amendment mandate against government denying equal protection under the law. He ordered the Capitol Club to integrate and the defendants to pay the costs of the lawsuit.

On Thursday, April 29, the Capitol Club Inc. held a meeting attended by 75 members. Secretary of State Bryant explained that the club board had recommended the revocation of the club's charter. He then announced that the cafeteria would reopen to the public the following morning at 7 a.m.

The next day, at 1 p.m., Ozell Sutton returned alone to the cafeteria where he had been refused service 10 months earlier. He joined the line, collected his food, and ate lunch without incident. Sutton told reporters that he was there to test facilities "as a matter of information." Manager Edris Tyer reported that "business was brisk." This time peacefully, another barrier to full equality for black Arkansans had been removed.

John A. Kirk is George W. Donaghey Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He is author of the book "Redefining the Color Line: Black Activism in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1940-1970," published by the University Press of Florida.

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