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Crystal Lee "Norma Rae" Sutton Dead of Cancer

Jeremy Sprinkle
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(Picture) Crystal Lee SuttonCrystal Lee Sutton at her home in Burlington, N.C. Photo Credit: By Joseph Rodriguez -- Associated Press

Icon of labor movement leaves a legacy of 'UNION'

The day before the start of our state AFL-CIO convention in Atlantic Beach, we received notice that Crystal Lee Sutton, the real life Norma Rae, had entered hospice care in Burlington for the final stage of her battle with cancer:

"She is with the Convention in spirit, and sends you all greetings: 'Be strong, fight for justice, UNION!' "

At the convention, a motion was made to take up a collection for her care and delegates all signed a card to wish her well. She would not live in time to receive either. As delegates traveled home on Friday, September 11, word came that Crystal Lee had died. She was 68.

Her heroism inspired the 1975 book Crystal Lee, A Woman of Inheritance, which was later adapted into the movie Norma Rae. Sally Field, who won her first oscar for portraying Crystal Lee in the film, released a statement on her passing:

"Crystal Lee Sutton was a remarkable woman whose brave struggles have left a lasting impact on this country and without doubt, on me personally," Field said in a statement Friday. "Portraying Crystal Lee in ‘Norma Rae,' however loosely based, not only elevated me as an actress, but as a human being."

In 1973, Sutton (then Crystal Lee Jordan), had worked on and off for 16 years at the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids. Low wages and poor working conditions were the norm in textile mills across the South. She earned just $2.65 an hour folding towels to support herself and her three children. Then Sutton met a union organizer, Eli Zivkovich, who was trying to organize the plant's workers.

Sutton dedicated herself to the cause of organizing her coworkers. In a 2008 interview, she explained to the Burlington Times-News why she risked everything on getting a union, "I've always been a take-charge person and if anything isn't right, I'm going to put my two cents in. If I see someone getting hurt, I'm going to help them."

Management hounded Sutton when she started showing up for work wearing a union pin, and Sutton dutifully took notes of their every action. When Sutton made a copy of a racist flyer management posted in the plant to dissuade white workers from supporting the union, she was fired on the spot.

What followed was the iconic moment portrayed in the film. In the book Hard Times Cotton Mill Girls, Sutton explained what happened next when she asked a coworker to use her marker:

"I grabbed it and I took a piece of pasteboard and I wrote the word UNION on it and, for some reason, I don't know why I did it, I climbed on the table and I just slowly turned the sign around. Everybody was in a state of shock and the machines started shutting down and everything got quiet. People started giving me the V sign."

The workers at J.P. Stevens won their struggle to join the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union in 1974, but it was years before the company signed a first contract. During that time, Sutton worked as an organizer for the union and led a boycott of J.P. Stevens products.

After leaving the union and divorcing her second husband, Crystal Lee settled in Burlington, NC, where she studied to become a nurse until her illness. After being diagnosed with cancer, the insurance company refused to cover potentially life-saving chemotherapy for two months, Crystal Lee told the Burlington paper:

"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."

In 2007, Sutton donated her photographs, papers, and other material chronicling her life to Alamance Community College, which houses the collection in their library and online. She is survived by her husband of 30 years, Lewis Sutton Jr.; her three children; two stepchildren; two sisters; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

One of our delegates, Richard Koritz, NALC, has since delivered our card to her family. We will forward in memoriam the $340 collected at our convention to the Crystal Lee Sutton Foundation:
Truliant Federal Credit Union
P.O. Box 26000
Winston-Salem, NC 27114

A sampling of obits and remembrances for Crystal Lee "Norma Rae" Sutton on the net:

  • Burlington Times-News: Sutton, inspiration of 'Norma Rae' and Burlington resident, dead at 68
  • Greensboro News & Record: Remembering inspiration behind movie 'Norma Rae'
  • LA Times: Crystal Lee Sutton dies at 68; union organizer inspired Oscar-winning film 'Norma Rae'
  • Washington Post: Labor Organizer was Inspiration for 'Norma Rae'
  • Huffington Post: ReThinking Norma Rae: A Union Icon Falls Fighting the Healthcare Industry
  • Daily Kos: Lessons from Crystal Lee Sutton
  • Facing South: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatment

For more information about the life and times of Crystal Lee Sutton, visit the Crystal Sutton Collection at Alamance Community College online.

"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."

--Crystal Lee Sutton, June 2008