The Crystal Sutton Collection
Real-Life Norma Rae Dies After Long Illness
A smiling Crystal Lee Sutton at the opening of the Crystal Sutton Collection. June 2007
"We admire her courage, we admire her convictions, and we admire her spirit. She is a champion not only of the working class but also of all who inspire to improve the lives of others." – Dr. Martin H. Nadelman, President of Alamance Community College.

The words describe Crystal Lee Sutton, the woman on whom the Oscar-winning movie Norma Rae starring Sally Field was based. She died on Sept. 11 following a long illness.

Dr. Nadelman made the comments about Sutton in June 2007 when she chose Alamance Community College as the repository for her historic unionization papers. Following the incidents depicted in the movie Norman Rae, Sutton became a nationally-recognized union organizer and public speaker.

Dr. Sam Powell, an ACC trustee who now serves on the state board of the N.C. Community College System, said in 2007: "That collection will provide scholars the ability to research an important perspective in the modern history of the textile industry and workers’ rights. For ACC, the collection and what it represents will inspire current and future students, many who themselves have had direct or indirect connections to the textile industry."

On Friday, Dr. Nadelman remembered Sutton this way: "Crystal Lee Sutton understood the value of education, and it was her desire that her very important work be housed in a facility where the ‘common man’ could view her papers. Her courage to stand up for what was right, even though the stance could have cost her a job, shows she was concerned for others. Through her relentless efforts to secure a safe work environment, she helped bring to the forefront a voice of reason for many who previously were mute."

Sutton, who matriculated through ACC’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. "Thank God for ACC," she said, "where even the working poor can come, get financial assistance, and get a new start in life."

She explained she had been collecting material since she began her crusade for unionization in 1973 and wanted to ensure it was preserved for future historians and students.

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," Sutton said in 2007. 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…"