The Crystal Sutton Collection
About Crystal Lee Sutton

Crystal Lee Sutton is the woman on whom the Oscar®-winning movie Norma Rae was based.

Sutton’s role in the history of labor is assured. In the early 1970s, Crystal Lee was 33 and working at the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., where she was making $2.65 an hour folding towels. The poor working conditions she and her fellow employees suffered 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,” said Crystal. She received threats and was finally fired from her job. But before she left, she took one final stand, filmed verbatim in the 1979 film 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…”

Sutton was physically removed from the plant by police, but the result of her actions was staggering. The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) won the right to represent the workers at the plant and Sutton became an organizer for the union. In 1977, Sutton was awarded back wages and her job was reinstated by court order, although she chose to return to work for just two days. She subsequently became a speaker on behalf of the ACTWU and was profiled in interviews on Good Morning America, in The New York Times Magazine, and countless other national and international publications during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“Sally Field did one heck of a job,” said Sutton about the 1979 film Norma Rae, based on her story. Although her name, as well as others, was changed due to legal reasons, she said most of what is portrayed is accurate. It won Sally Field an Oscar, a Golden Globe and the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival.

The Crystal Lee Sutton Awards, established in her name a few years ago, recognize individuals and organizations whose efforts have contributed to presenting positive images of working people to the American public.

Sutton, who matriculated through Alamance Community College’s Nursing Assistant program in 1988, said she chose the College as the repository of her papers because of its record in providing education for all people. She says she has been collecting material since she began her crusade for unionization in 1973 and wanted to ensure it was preserved for future historians and students.

“Thank God for ACC,” she says, “where even the working poor can come, get financial assistance, and get a new start in life.”

Crystal and Sally
Crystal Sutton speaking engagement
St. Paul Minnesota, 1988.
Real-Life Norma Rae Dies After Long Illness
Crystal Lee Sutton Battles Cancer
Burlington Times-News
Crystal Lee Sutton "Norma Rae" Battles Cancer