Crystal Lee Sutton

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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) was an American union organizer and advocate who gained fame during the early 1970s when a popular movie was based on events related to her being fired from her job at the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina for trying to unionize its employees.[citation needed]

Union activism and recognition[edit]

Complaints about pay and working conditions at the J.P. Stevens factory stimulated Sutton and her fellow employees to rebel.[citation needed] She joined forces with Eli Zivkovich, a union organizer in an attempt to unionize the J.P. Stevens employees.[citation needed] “Management and others treated me as if I had leprosy,” she stated.[citation needed] Sutton earned $2.65 per hour folding towels ($14.17 in 2015 inflation adjusted dollars).[1]

She received threats and was finally fired from her job.[citation needed] But before she left, she took one final stand, filmed in 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…” [2] Sutton was physically removed from the plant by police, but she achieved her goal.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] However, because of the intractability of J. P. Stevens, workers at the plant continued without a contract until 1980.[citation needed] 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.[3] Sutton became a paid organizer for the ACTWU and went on a national speaking tour as "the real Norma Rae."[4] Sutton was the 13th recipient of the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award in 1980.[citation needed] 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]

Sutton complained that the ACTWU didn't support her after her arrest. She claimed union leaders "acted like they were ashamed to have ever had anything to do with Crystal Lee." She said that when she was reinstated at J.P. Stevens, she was snubbed by the union organizer. "I mean, I walked into that mill that day and the organizer said he didn't even know who I was. There was nobody from the regional office. No press, nothing." Two days later she quit her job.[5]

Norma Rae[edit]

The 1979 film Norma Rae, starring Sally Field, is based on Sutton's early union work.[citation needed] The movie is based on the 1975 book about her by New York Times reporter Henry "Hank" Leifermann Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance.[6] Her papers and memorabilia are located at Alamance Community College in North Carolina, where she took classes in nursing in 1988.[7]

Personal life[edit]

Sutton was born Crystal Lee Pulley in Roanoke Rapids.[citation needed] She married at 19, gave birth to her first child at 20, and was widowed at 21.[citation needed] She had a second child out of wedlock at 22.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] She married Lewis Sutton Jr. about 1977. Obituaries state they were married 32 years.[citation needed]


Crystal Lee Sutton died of inoperable brain cancer at Hospice Home in Burlington, North Carolina.[8][9]


  1. ^ Patricia Sullivan (September 16, 2009). "Labor Organizer Crystal Lee Sutton Dies 68". Retrieved 21 December 2015. 
  2. ^ "Welcome to the Crystal Sutton Collection" Official website of Crystal Lee Sutton
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ Howard Pousner (April 17, 1980). "The Real "Norman Rae" Is No Sally Fields". Spokesman-Review. p. 17. Retrieved 21 December 2015. 
  6. ^ Leifermann, Henry P., (1975). Crystal Lee, A Woman of Inheritance. New York: MacMillan. ISBN 0-02-570220-3. 
  7. ^ 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. 
  8. ^ Patricia Sullivan (September 16, 2009). "Labor Organizer Crystal Lee Sutton Dies 68". Retrieved 21 December 2015. 
  9. ^ "Crystal Lee Sutton dies at 68". Retrieved 21 December 2015. 

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