Lillian Bonner Sutson, Feisty Voting Rights Activist From South Carolina, Dies At 99

Lillian Bonner Sutson, 99, died Monday of age-related causes, according to grandson Marcus Jones. He told Boston media sources that the feisty if little-known civil rights activist had passed away in a nursing home in Saugus, Masschusetts.

Although Sutson lived the last 50 years of her life in that state, Boston.com and WWLP 22 both noted that Sutson was born the granddaughter of a slave in South Carolina.

In 1940, Sutson, her mother, and two other African-American women attempted to register as Democrats to vote in Gaffney, South Carolina. After they were denied and threatened, they worked with future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to fight for their right to vote.

At times, the death threats against the women were so intense that they had to receive FBI protection. And they ultimately lost this very early civil rights case.

However, their efforts were a step forward as far as gaining recognition for their cause.

Sutson lived long enough to be honored by both the first African-American governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick and the first African-American First Lady Michelle Obama.

Jones said that his grandmother was feisty and alert almost to the end.

Indeed, WWLP noted that in 2011 — when Lillian Bonner Sutson was already 97 years old — she was able to fight off and stab an assailant who tried to rob her at her home in Lynn, Massachusetts. The would-be mugger fled but was later arrested.

Sutson’s passing is another reminder that we’re running out of time to learn directly from the generation that fought in the mid-20th century struggle for civil rights in the United States.

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In late July, I reported on the recent death of Willie Reed, a witness who testified in the murder trial of the men who tortured and killed 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955.

Despite Reed’s testimony which put the men on the scene, they were acquitted by a Mississippi jury. Aware that they couldn’t be tried again under double jeopardy laws, the killers then confessed to the crime in Look magazine for the sum of $4,000.

Reed was only 17 or 18 (accounts differ) at the time of his testimony. He was threatened with lynching himself and ultimately moved to Chicago, where he lived out his life quietly until he passed recently at age 76.

Both Willie Reed and Lillian Bonner Sutson will be remembered as quiet heroes who weren’t seeking media attention — just equal rights and equal justice for all.

[Natasha Kramskay via Shutterstock]