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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."

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