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Posted 09/15/2009

On Friday, September 11, 2009, Crystal Lee Sutton passed away after battling several years with Meningioma, a form of brain cancer that is usually benign. “I call my cancer a journey,” she said in a June 2008 interview withThe Burlington Times-News, “and it is interesting to see where it goes. It reminds you to live each day to the best you can.”

The spirited hope and courage with which Sutton approached her fight with cancer was matched only by her commitment to the fight for justice and respect for workers. Her activism on behalf of workers and the poor began in 1973 when Sutton was working at the J.P. Stevens textile mill in Roanoke Rapids (taken over by a Georgia-based company in 1988) and became involved in the Textile Workers Union of America’s unionization campaign. After copying down an anti-union notice posted in the mill by management, Sutton was fired and arrested for disorderly conduct. Her moment of defiance before she was forced from the mill, standing atop a table holding a “UNION” sign high above her head, was immortalized in the 1979 Academy-award winning movie Norma Rae.

Sutton’s activism took many forms and connected struggles for unionization with the women’s movement. In 1974, she appeared in the pilot episode of PBS’ Woman Alive!, featuring Gloria Steinem and Lily Tomlin, and articulated the need for union representation to protect working women and promote gender equity. In 1980, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union of America (ACTWU) sent her on a speaking tour to promote the union’s boycott of J.P. Stevens’ products. As the “real Norma Rae,” Sutton travelled across the country and even to Canada and the Soviet Union in support of workers’ rights to organize for better wages, fair treatment, and safe working conditions. In 2007, she donated her personal papers to Alamance Community College, a place “where the working poor can come… and get a new start to life,” she maintained. During her illness, she vocalized her own struggles with the health care industry.

On Friday, the world lost a steadfast advocate for social justice, but her contributions and commitment will not be forgotten. The story of Crystal Lee’s thirty-five years of campaigning for a more democratic society will continue to inspire activists, workers, and scholars.

Joey Fink is a graduate student in the History Department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.