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Ozell Sutton dies at 90; longtime civil rights activist

Civil rights activist Ozell Sutton, shown in 1996, was an ally of Martin Luther King Jr., and marched with him in Selma, Ala., in 1965. After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Sutton joined efforts to rebuild the city.

Civil rights activist Ozell Sutton, shown in 1996, was an ally of Martin Luther King Jr., and marched with him in Selma, Ala., in 1965. After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Sutton joined efforts to rebuild the city.

(Tom Ewart / Associated Press)

Ozell Sutton, who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and worked as a mediator in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the 1992 riots, has died. He was 90.

His daughter, Alta Sutton, said he died at Saint Joseph Hospital in Atlanta on Saturday.

Ozell Sutton was among the civil-rights activists who marched with King in Selma, Ala., in 1965. When King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968, Sutton heard the shot, he said in a later interview. He looked out the window and saw King’s body on the balcony.

Sutton came to Los Angeles in the days after the riots and joined the Rebuild L.A. effort, a public-private initiative aimed at repairing damaged sections of the city.

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At the time, there was much talk of police reform and commercial development. Sutton put the focus squarely on the skyrocketing homicide death rate among black men.

“We are gravely concerned with the violence in this country, and we are not ashamed to say it’s involving our youth,” Sutton told the Los Angeles Times shortly after the riots, speaking on behalf of the national service fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha.

“The leading cause of death among African Americans 15 to 19 years old is homicide, and we’re concerned about that,” he said.

The surge in homicides in Los Angeles County preceded the riots. Death rates would remain at levels comparable to war zones for the first half of the 1990s. All told, 2,574 black men and black teenage boys were slain in Los Angeles County in that five-year period, according to statistics compiled by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

Sutton was born Dec. 13, 1925, in Gould, Ark., the son of Charlie and Lula Belle Dowthard, a sharecropper. He graduated from the state’s Philander Smith College, and served in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II. He recalled fighting the Japanese before an Atlanta audience in 2001. “You can’t believe what it’s like to fight for your country and be humiliated by your country at the same time,” he said.

In 1950, Sutton became the first black journalist at the white-owned Arkansas Democrat. He was among the activists supporting nine African American students who sought to desegregate Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Protesters there roughed him up for acting as a decoy, he later said.

During a long career as an activist and mediator, he married, had three daughters and served in several state and federal community-relations posts. He was a Justice Department community relations service official at the time of Rebuild L.A.

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While soldiers still patrolled the city’s streets, he and his colleagues camped in a temporary office in City Hall and worked to ease conflict.

Sutton also served as the general president of Alpha Phi Alpha and was chairman of its racial justice committee in the post-riot period. He was director of the U.S. Justice Department’s Community Relations Service in Atlanta when he retired in 2003.

Alta Sutton said her father has “run the race and he has served.”

In 2013, a Little Rock, Ark., newspaper quoted his remarks to a leadership gathering:

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“A man has nothing to say about when he is born, where he is born, to whom he is born, or even what color he is born.... He may have nothing to say about when he dies, where he dies, or how he dies.”

But the years in between, Sutton said, “belong to him and he has everything to say about what happens in that space.”

jill.leovy@latimes.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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