Crystal Lee Sutton, the real-life inspiration for the 1979 movie 'Norma Rae,' died Friday after a battle with meningioma, cancer of the meninges, at the age of 68. Her actions helped to bring a union contract to employees at a J.P. Stevens textile plant in Roanoke Rapids, NC, and she gained national fame as a symbol of women's and laborers' right after her efforts (and jailing) were fictionalized in the movie.
Crystal Lee Sutton with actor Sally Field, who portrayed a fictionalized version of Sutton.
Ironically, she has also become a symbol for the corruption and dysfunction of the American health care system. In a year-old newspaper interview, Sutton compared insurance company behavior to murder.
She went two months without possible life-saving medications because her insurance wouldn't cover it, another example of abusing the working poor, she said.
'How in the world can it take so long to find out (whether they would cover the medicine or not) when it could be a matter of life or death,' she said. 'It is almost like, in a way, committing murder.'
At the time, her husband was working two jobs to help take care of her while she battled the cancer. She did receive the medication eventually, as indicated in the article, but this was apparently a clear case of the insurance company getting between the patient and the doctors.
Working with union organizer Eli Zivkovich, Sutton eventually raised the ire of the factory management after speaking with other workers about unionizing and copying a race-baiting anti-union flyer for Eli. In a climactic incident she was fired and jailed. The events resulted in a 1975 book by New York Times Hank Leiferman and the 1979 film.
J.P. Stevens management ultimately signed a contract with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union in 1980, after the release of the movie. Sally Field won an Academy Award for her portrayal.
'I said I've always been different and I wouldn't have this cancer thing be any other way. I accept it,' she said. 'It has to follow my personality.'
Sally Field portrays Crystal Lee Sutton in this still from the motion picture 'Norma Rae.'
Sutton meets former President Bill Clinton in 2008, with historian Leslie Thompson.
Single payer universal health care or just health insurance reform? Not having health insurance will bankrupt you and kill you, but having insurance can bankrupt you and kill you, too. Rest in peace, Ms. Sutton, and condolences to her survivors. Arrangements are incomplete with McClure Funeral Home in Graham.
Statement from Family:
Thank you so much for getting the word out about Crystal. I was able to share the messages with her, and it meant a lot to her and to her family. She even managed a smile at the H.L. Mencken quote! She died yesterday about 3:30, peacefully, with her family there. The local paper had a front page article this morning, here. The funeral is tomorrow, the last I heard, at Maclure funeral home in Graham, N.C., at 2:00, with visitation prior to the service. I miss her already.
Well wishes and thoughts can be sent to Pat Scheible firstname.lastname@example.org