Real-Life “Norma Rae” Dies After Battle With Insurance Company


Crystal Lee Sutton, 68, formerly Crystal Lee Jordan—on whom Sally Field’s Norma Rae was based—died last Friday of brain cancer. Her insurance company at first had refused her treatment, then after two months relented, but the cancer moved too fast, and Sutton died.

Would the new health care reform legislation proposed this morning by Senator Max Baucus—minus, as predicted, the public option—have helped her? Probably not. The nation is full of stories like this, stories which have scant impact on the Republican right in Congress, who have made it abundantly clear that their only goal is to take out Obama—whatever that may require.

But the case of Sutton is especially poignant.

Sutton was earning $2.65 an hour folding towels at the J.P. Stevens textile plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina when she was fired for trying to organize a union. Before she was removed by the cops, Sutton wrote the word ‘union’ in capital letters on cardboard and got up on her work table to lead workers in turning off their machines in solidarity. Her efforts were not in vain. In August, 1974, the plant recognized the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, which has since become part of the Service Employees International Union.

Sutton was had meningioma, a usually slow growing cancer of the nervous system. In her case, it spread quickly. “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? It is almost like, in a way, committing murder,” she said.

Last year, Sutton told a reporter how she would like to be remembered:

It is not necessary I be remembered as anything, but I would like to be remembered as a woman who deeply cared for the working poor and the poor people of the U.S. and the world, that my family and children and children like mine will have a fair share and equality.

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