The Crystal Sutton Collection
Real 'Norma Rae' has new battle involving cancer
By Brie Handgraaf / Times-News
June 28, 2008 - 8:58PM

Crystal Lee Sutton, 67, says she never lived on easy street and wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but none of that stopped her from making a difference in this world.

Sutton grew up like most in the small North Carolina town of Roanoke Rapids - her family relied on the textile industry and in Roanoke Rapids that meant the J.P. Stevens mill, where pay was poor and conditions were worse.

She worked the 4 p.m. to midnight shift at age 17. By 19, she had her first child and by 20, she was widowed. Her second child arrived a year later and her third came four years down the road.

The whole time she worked at the mill, just trying to make enough to take care of her family. She even hauled an Avon bag around the rural community trying to make a few extra bucks on the side.

Her second husband, "Cookie" Jordan, moved her up in the world to a "fancy" house, but that only lasted a few years. He often complained that she was never home. By that time, she wasn't selling Avon out of that shoulder bag anymore. It was filled with papers about the union.

Her story was transformed by Hollywood into the award-winning film, "Norma Rae." However, the real life events were different from the film and Sally Field's portrayal ended after the cameras stopped rolling, but the real "Norma Rae" faces a new battle now - cancer. In the film, the union organizer, Eli Zivkovich, was transformed from the real life 55-year-old former coal miner from West Virginia into a fast-talking young Jew from New York.

He set up shop in the small town and was looking to organize the mill workers. Sutton relied on the mill for survival, but knew she and the other workers deserved better and she was determined to make that a reality, no matter what that meant.

"I've always been a take-charge person and if anything isn't right, I'm going to put my two cents in," Sutton said. "If I see someone getting hurt, I'm going to help them."

Sutton became Zivkovich's number-one volunteer, spending hours going door-to-door promoting the union and going into work early to discuss organizing with other mill employees.

"When I went in the plant with my union pin, you would have thought I had the plague and that is when the trouble started," she said. "It was truly different because a woman had never done or dared to do such stuff."

According to rules, management had no say what employees did in their free time, so Sutton had every right to talk to workers, on their breaks, about unions.

It was also required that employers have union information posted for workers to read. The mill had posted a flyer saying the union would be run by blacks, and when Sutton told Zivkovich, he told her she needed to copy what the paper said.

When management saw this, they fired her. This is when she wrote "UNION" on a piece of cardboard and stood up on a work station in the middle of one of the factory rooms.

Sound familiar?

"That was why they wanted to make the movie," she said of "Norma Rae," the movie based on her life. "That was the first time a woman took a strong stand like that."

All the workers joined Sutton by shutting down the machines, turning the bustling factory silent, even if it only lasted a few minutes. Sutton was taken to jail; a scene in the movie she said was the most memorable for her.

Once Zivkovich bailed her out, she went home and woke up her kids to tell them the news. She knew they would hear gossip about her and she wanted them to know the actual story.

That was in 1973. For a few months, she and Zivkovich had to work from the outside. On August 28, 1974 their hard work and sacrifice paid off when the workers voted for the union. However, it took about 10 years for J.P. Stevens to actually sign a contract with the union.

By then, Sutton was an organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, giving interviews and leading a boycott against J.P. Stevens' products. She and "Cookie" Jordan had separated and she moved to Burlington.

"We were impressed that she was a hardworking mother of three that was taking this great risk for workers' rights," said Joan Shigekawa, who featured Sutton in her 1975 PBS primetime series, "Woman Alive!"

"She was working across all boundaries."

New York Times author Hank Leiferman told her story in the 1975 book "Crystal Lee, A Woman of Inheritance." In 1979, her story was thinly masked in the Hollywood blockbuster.

"Her courage was inspiring to people and I think that comes out very powerfully in the feature film," Shigekawa said. "It takes a lot to stand up for your values in that way and put your job at risk fighting for principals. She is universally admired - whether you agreed with her or not. Her personal qualities gave her heart."

She has been married to Lewis Preston Sutton Jr. for 30 years and he works two jobs to take care of her while she battles Meniginoma - a cancer that is usually slow growing with benign tumors. Unfortunately, that is not the case for Sutton.

"I said I've always been different and I wouldn't have this cancer thing be any other way. I accept it," she said. "It has to follow my personality."

She went two months without possible life-saving medications because her insurance wouldn't cover it, another example of abusing the working poor, she said.

"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 or death," she said. "It is almost like, in a way, committing murder."

She eventually received the medication, but the cancer is taking a toll on her strong will and solid frame. Her thin black hair is brittle from the drugs and chemo treatments. She has had brain surgery twice -once on Jan. 29, 2007, and again on Jan. 11, 2008.

"I call my cancer a journey and it is interesting to see where it goes," she said. "It reminds you to live each day to the best you can. You are so much more appreciative of tiny things."

Sutton's small brick home chronicles the battles she fought and the people who have acknowledged her sacrifices. Her walls and refrigerator are plastered with photos of her three children, two stepchildren, 11 grandchildren and four great grandchildren. She hopes they will follow in footprints.

"Stand up for what you believe in, not matter how hard it makes life for you," she said. "Do not give up and always say what you believe."

But the cancer is a daily reminder that she is not invincible, no matter how feisty she is.

"It is not necessary I be remembered as anything, but I would like to be remembered as a woman who deeply cared for the working poor and the poor people of the U.S. and the world," she said. "That my family and children and children like mine will have a fair share and equality."

She said that the North American Free Trade Agreement and the proposed Central America Free Trade Agreement sold the working poor down the river, but still believes the union can help.

"The jobs are gone so the unions are going to have to go into Mexico, El Salvador and into all these other countries. They'll have to talk to all these people that are working for slave labor and explain what protection they will have with the union," she said. "We need to show these companies that moved there for slave labor, that it is not going to work. We are coming back strong and there will be jobs to come."

To help Sutton with her cancer treatment, send donations to:
Truliant Federal Credit
P.O. Box 26000
Winston-Salem, N.C.

Crystal and Sally
Eli Zivkovich and Crystal Lee Sutton spent several years handing out fliers and organizing the workers before the union won the right to represent the workers.
This article originally ran in the Burlington Times-News. Click here for the original article.