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Longtime civil rights activist Ozell Sutton dead at 90

Ozell Sutton poses for a portait in 2007. (ELISSA EUBANKS/STAFF)

Ozell Sutton, a longtime civil rights activist who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., died Saturday. He was 90.

Sutton, friends said, may have been one of the most unknown of a cadre of influential civil rights workers.

In 1957, in the early, unsettled days of school desegregation, he helped enroll nine African-American students at Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. In 1965, he marched for equal rights in Selma, Ala., confronting angry police. Three years later, in 1968, he was in a Memphis hotel room adjacent to King’s when the minister was assassinated.

Sutton was one of the first African-Americans to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps, a distinction that earned him a Congressional Gold Medal in 2012 from President Barack Obama.

Sutton also served as general president of the national service fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha.

He also worked for the U.S. Department of Justice as a mediator. Sutton retired in 2003 as the department’s director of community relations.

He was, two friends said Sunday, someone who influenced lives.

Sutton encouraged younger members of Alpha Phi Alpha, recalled Darryl Ricardo Matthews, an Alpharetta resident. Like Sutton, he served as the organization’s general president.

“He was one of the more down-to-earth – approachable, that’s what I’d call him – approachable general presidents,” said Matthews. “Ozell was just such a people person.”

Sutton urged Matthews to seek employment in the corporate world, then return to the fraternity’s administration and put to work the lessons he’d learned. Matthews did.

“You can’t say too many superlative things about Ozell,” he said.

Sutton provided a calming influence following the Ku Klux Klan and the America Nazi Party’s killing in 1979 of five Community Party workers in Greensboro, N.C., said former Atlanta resident Vic Carter. The two men met in Greensboro – Sutton representing the U.S. Department of Justice, Carter as a reporter for a North Carolina TV station. Carter is now a news anchor in Baltimore.

Carter, also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, hoped their shared fraternal connections would give him an edge on covering the story.

“He said, ‘Nice try, young man, but it doesn’t work that way,’” Carter recalled.

They became friends. When Sutton wanted to tell his life story, he called on Carter, a former WSB-TV newsman. They spent a year talking in the basement of Sutton’s Southwest Atlanta home. The result was “From Yonder to Here,” an account of Sutton’s work in civil rights and justice.

“His bravery, his candor, his kindness – they greatly influenced me,” Carter said.

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