The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Crystal Lee Sutton, Lifelong Fighter

Sep 28, 2009

Crystal Lee Sutton, the North Carolina textile worker who inspired the film Norma Rae, has died of brain cancer.

The movie, in fact, was based on an earlier book by Hank Lieferman entitled simply Crystal Lee. It is an interesting book that gives a feeling of life for workers, and women in particular, in a Southern mill town, Roanoke Rapids, in the 1960s and ‘70s. Sutton came from a family of generations of mill workers. By age 17, she too went to work in the cotton mills. Within eight years, she had three children to feed. She went to work for J.P. Stevens, a notoriously anti-union company, in 1972.

The Textile Workers Union of America had attempted to organize workers at Stevens for 10 years before they won a court case in 1973 requiring the company to back off on some of its intimidation tactics. Sutton soon threw herself into organizing the union. On what became her last day on the job, Sutton copied down a letter the company had posted aimed at pitting white workers against black, suggesting that black workers were planning to take control of the growing union. In a scene that would be made famous in both the book and the movie, Sutton stood on a work station holding a handwritten sign saying “UNION,” before she was taken out of the plant and arrested by the police. She later went door-to-door organizing for the union. Her efforts helped the J.P. Stevens workers win a union a year later.

Sutton continued to speak out in the last months of her life against blood-sucking insurance companies. Despite a clear diagnosis of serious cancer, her insurance company denied her treatment for two months. “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 and death,” she said.

In fact, it was a matter of life and death – in this case the death of Crystal Lee.