Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Crystal Lee Sutton

Crystal Lee Sutton was born on December 31, 1940 in Roanoke Rapids, NC, to parents who worked in the textile mills, just as their parents before them had.  Although she had other aspirations, Sutton followed suit and took a job with J.P. Stevens when she turned seventeen.  She worked looms for two years, leaving the mill only when she became pregnant with her first child and married.  Within a year, however, she found herself widowed and with another baby on the way.  She would remarry after the birth of her second child and eventually have a third a few years later with her second husband Larry Jordan.  Dissatisfied with the life she led as a housewife thereafter, Sutton found work for a time in a hotel and then a diner before finally deciding to return to the textile mill.

Conditions at J.P. Stevens were just as bad as Sutton recalled.  A few months after returning to the mill, she attended her first union meeting.  Immediately drawn to the movement, she began collaborating with Textile Workers Union of America and organizer Eli Zivkovich.  Sutton quickly drew the ire of factory bosses for her outspokenness.  One anecdote in particular captures her staunch defiance and strength of will.  Zivkovich had gifted her a notebook entitled "What the Company Will Do for You"--a book full of blank pages.  Whenever she was called into supervisors’ offices to be reprimanded for miscellaneous, petty offenses like loitering in the bathroom or "talking too much," Sutton brought the book with her and, ever-attentive to their valid complaints, took notes in it.  This rendered management dumbstruck, astonished that anyone would have the gall to behave like this in the face of their authority.

Things came to a head when Sutton violated company policy to copy down an anti-union propaganda letter that had been posted on a bulletin board.  Knowing that they could get in trouble with National Labor Relations Board for the racist content of the letter and already looking for a reason to get rid of the rabble-rouser, factory bosses summoned the police to arrest Sutton.  Before she was taken away, however, Sutton seized the chance for one last show of resistance, climbing onto a worktable and holding up a makeshift cardboard sign on which she had scrawled the word “UNION."  This iconic moment of defiance would feature famously in the film Norma Rae, a work that she was the inspiration for.

Sutton continued her work in labor organizing and advocacy for the rest of her life, scoring a hard-fought victory in court against J.P. Stevens several years after she was fired.  Though she succumbed to cancer in 2009 at the age of 68, she has left her mark on labor history in the south and as portrayed on the silver screen.

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