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Crystal Lee Sutton

Crystal Lee Sutton
Born (1940-12-31)December 31, 1940
Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, U.S.A
Died September 11, 2009(2009-09-11) (aged 68)
Burlington, North Carolina
Nationality United States
Other names Crystal Lee Pulley
Crystal Lee Jordan
Occupation Advocate, Union organizer

Crystal Lee Sutton (née Pulley; December 31, 1940 – September 11, 2009),[1] formerly known as Crystal Lee Jordan, was an American union organizer and advocate who gained fame during the early 1970s. She was fired from her job at the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, for trying to unionize its employees.

Early life and career

Poor working conditions/wages at the J.P. Stevens factory caused Crystal Lee and her fellow employees great suffering. This compelled her to join forces with Eli Zivkovich, a union organizer, and attempt to unionize the J.P. Stevens employees. “Management and others treated me as if I had leprosy,” she stated. Sutton was earning $2.65 an hour folding towels ($12.57 in today's dollars).[2] According to the May 2013, US Department of Labor Statistics, the average textile worker in the U.S. makes $12.52/hour. [3]

She received threats and was finally fired from her job. But before she left, she took one final stand, filmed verbatim from the 1975 novel, Norma Rae. “I took a piece of cardboard and wrote the word UNION on it in big letters, got up on my work table, and slowly turned it around. The workers started cutting their machines off and giving me the victory sign. All of a sudden the plant was very quiet…” [4] Sutton was physically removed from the plant by police, but the result of her actions was staggering. On August 28, 1974, the 3,133 workers at the Roanoke Rapids plant voted to allow The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) to represent them by a slim 237 vote margin. However, because of the intractability of J. P. Stevens, workers at the plant continued without a contract until 1980. Thanks to a coalition of African American and white women employees of the mill, Sutton's national speaking tour, and local organizing on behalf of workers among religious groups, J. P. Stevens and ACTWU agreed to a settlement in 1980.[5] Sutton became a paid organizer for the ACTWU and went on a national speaking tour as "the real Norma Rae."[6] Sutton was the 13th recipient of the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award in 1980. The honor was named after a 1963 encyclical letter, Pacem in terris (Peace on Earth), by Pope John XXIII, that calls upon all people of good will to secure peace among all nations.[citation needed]

Today, the ACTWU is a small affiliate of the huge service employees union. J.P. Stevens was bought out and split up a few years after the successful union drive, selling for $1.2 billion [7] (the equivalent of $2.37 billion in 2014). The American garment and textile industry, which employed 2.3 million people as recently as 1976, has all but disappeared.[8]

Norma Rae

The 1979 film Norma Rae, starring Sally Field, is based on Sutton's early union work. The movie is based on the 1975 book about her by New York Times reporter Henry "Hank" Leiferman Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance.[9] Her papers and memorabilia are located at Alamance Community College in North Carolina, where she took classes in nursing in 1988.[10]

Personal life

Crystal Lee Pulley was born in Roanoke Rapids. She married at 19, gave birth to her first child at 20, and was widowed at 21. She had a second child out of wedlock at 22. She married Larry Jordan Jr. and had her third child at 25. Following the events that made her famous and before the release of Norma Rae, she and Jordan were divorced. She married Lewis Sutton Jr. about 1977. Obituaries state they were married 32 years.[11][12]


Crystal Lee Sutton died, aged 68, at Hospice House in Burlington, North Carolina, on September 11, 2009, from meningioma, a form of brain cancer that she had been fighting for several years. She had been struggling with her health insurance company, which had delayed her treatment.[1][13]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Handgraaf, Brie (2008-06-28). "Real 'Norma Rae' has new battle involving cancer". The Times-News. Archived from the original on 2009-06-29. 
  4. "Welcome to the Crystal Sutton Collection" Official website of Crystal Lee Sutton
  9. Leifermann, Henry P., (1975). Crystal Lee, A Woman of Inheritance. New York: MacMillan. ISBN 0-02-570220-3. 
  10. Beach, Peggy (2007-08-02). "'Norma Rae' donates her papers to Alamance Community College: Alamance alum Leslie Thompson helps catalog donation" (Press release). North Carolina Community College System Public Affairs. 
  11. Obituary New York Times, 15 September 2009.
  12. Obituary Los Angeles Times, 20 September 2009.
  13. Sturgis, Sue (2009-09-14). "Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatment". Facing South (Institute for Southern Studies). 

External links

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