Crystal Lee Jordan Sutton, a former textile worker and inspiration for the character of Norma Rae in the 1979 film about the fight for unionization in Southern textile mills, has died.
Sutton, who lived in Burlington, had been battling a brain tumor for more than two years. She was 68.
She got involved in the labor movement in textiles just as North Carolina's stature as a manufacturing giant was about to decline. Unionization of a small part of the industry's work force was only one factor; overseas competition and the relocation of U.S.-owned mills to Mexico and Asia, where labor is cheaper, claimed hundreds of thousands of jobs. Within a decade of her arrest for agitating inside the mill where she worked, so little manufacturing was left that Sutton had to explain to people why workers were once teased as "lintheads."
She remained a symbol of the struggle to improve working conditions and wages for mill workers long after the industry itself had been completely transformed. As North Carolina hemorrhaged manufacturing jobs during the past three decades, Sutton continued to tell the story of how she helped organize workers at a J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids and what it cost her to be a part of the fight.
She also advocated for women's rights, racial equality, help for the poor and, after doctors found a malignant tumor on her brain, equal access to medical treatment.
Syd Alexander, a Chapel Hill attorney who represented Sutton for years and remained friends with her, said she was true to her values.
"She found a mission and a goal and she stayed with it," Alexander said. "She was not an articulate, polished speaker, but she was absolutely unabashed about telling her story and what she believed in. And she was such a natural, because the story was true."
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