Civil rights pioneer relives darkest days of movement

by: Craig Lucie Updated:

Loading

ATLANTA - Dr. Ozell Sutton has accomplished many things in his lifetime.  He may be one of the most unknown influential pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement.

Channel 2's Craig Lucie toured the new National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Downtown Atlanta with Dr. Sutton as he relived some of his darkest days.

"I was in Washington.  We marched on Washington," Sutton told Lucie while watching a large video monitor showing images from the march.  He repeated the famous words from Dr. Martin Luther King's speech.  "Free at last, thank God America, free at last.  I remember that day."

 The 88-year-old said he felt good about being at the march.  That wasn't particularly the case at the march in Selma, Ala.  He attended the second march in March of 1965.  Police faced off with marchers who were pushing for African-American voting rights.

"I was present when we crossed the bridge the second time.   We were beaten in Selma," Sutton reflected.   "I cried.  I cried many times.  Lord knows we cried."

Dr. Sutton paused at the video running in the center that announced the assassination of Dr. King.

He was staying in room 308 of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee that day.  Dr., King was in room 306.  Sutton heard the shots that killed the civil rights leader.

"It was a very emotional day," he said.

Before Sutton became friends with Dr. King, he had already started his civil rights mission.   He became a pivotal role in his hometown of Little Rock Arkansas.  In 1957, he helped nine African-American students get into the school.  They later became known as the Little Rock Nine.

Sutton's daughter, Alta, is a central high graduate and remembered what her father did on the steps to help pave the way for her and thousands more.

"He served as a decoy, meaning that as the crowd thought he was part of the nine, they rushed him, so the students could go through another door," she said.

Lucie traveled to Little Rock and stood outside Dr. Sutton's former home.  It was there that Dr. Sutton said he would sit on his front porch after President Eisenhower ordered federal troops on the scene.  He would watch them escort the nine student to Little Rock Central High.

Lucie talked to Dr. Sutton's former neighbor, S.F. Thompson, Jr. who was a teenager at the time and friends with the Little Rock Nine.

"He's a monument of civic leaders out of many from Arkansas.  He continued that tradition into Atlanta," Thompson said.  "It's wonderful to have someone tell his stories.  Otherwise our history would be lost."

After the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Sutton worked at the U.S. Department of Justice, serving as a mediator.  He retired in 2003 as their Director of Community Relations.  President Barack Obama recently presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal for being one of the first African-Americans to serve in the United States Marine Corp.

Lucie asked him, of all his accomplishments, which one makes him the most proud.

He didn't hesitate.

"I'm proud of the involvement in the fight for freedom," he said.


Channel 2 Action News

Delivered To Your Inbox