Crystal Lee Sutton died last week at the age of 68.
You may have known her by a different name.
Last year, in a recorded interview with the NC Policy Watch, Sutton recalled the moment that changed her life — and later elevated the lives of thousands of textile workers.
It was May 1973. She was a 33- year-old mother with three children, widowed once and remarried, making $2.65 an hour assembling towel sets at the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, N.C. She had just started her shift, when a supervisor ordered her to the front office.
Sutton walked through the door and into a gaggle of plant supervisors. One of the men accused her of talking too long on the pay phone and spending too much time in the bathroom, but she knew that wasn’t the real reason she was standing there.
She also knew she was about to lose her job.
“You got to let me go back in my plant and get my purse,” she said. Sutton rushed to her station, but she had no intention of reaching for her handbag.
“I got a piece of cardboard that we used to put in our towel gift sets,” she said. “I just grabbed (a magic marker), and I just wrote the word ‘union’ on that piece of cardboard and climbed on the table. I don’t even know how I got up there. And I held that word ‘union’ up — that cardboard — and turned it around. And people — they finally all shut their machines down.”
Police officers dragged her out of the plant that day. Six years later, Sutton was Norma Rae, the brave union organizer played by Sally Field in the movie.
The actress won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. The activist faded into relative obscurity, but even as a great-grandmother, she never stopped fighting for the people of her roots.
She was humble about the union organizing that led to higher wages, health care benefits and paid vacations for textile workers throughout the South. One of her close friends in later years, Carrie Price, didn’t know anything about her past until two years after they met.
They were both nursing assistants and community activists and lived across the street from each other in Burlington, N.C. One day, Price pointed to Sutton’s framed photo of Sally Field holding up the “union” sign.
“Oh, you like Sally Field, too?”
Sutton’s third and longtime husband, Lewis, started to laugh.
“You don’t know who Crystal is?” he said. “She’s the real Norma Rae.”
Price was stunned. Sutton just nodded and smiled.
“She never stopped taking notes, giving interviews and talking about the rights of people who can’t fight for themselves,” Price said.
In January 2007, Sutton was diagnosed with brain cancer. She had two surgeries and suffered a two-month lapse in treatment while she haggled over health care coverage. Once again, she told the Burlington Times News, she was fighting a battle facing so many of the working poor.
“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.”
She was a warrior to the end, Price said.
“I’ve never seen any woman fight cancer as hard as she did. She was in a wheelchair in the last few months, and she wanted me to push her to a protest about a school’s teacher cuts.”
Last year, a Burlington Times News reporter asked Sutton how she’d like to be remembered. “It is not necessary I be remembered as anything,” she said, “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 would never say this about herself,” Price said, “but you’d think more people would remember her. You’d think more people would care.”
Crystal Lee Sutton died last Friday.
The need for her voice lives on.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the author of two books from Random House, “Life Happens” and “… and His Lovely Wife.”
©2009 Creators Syndicate