R.I.P. Crystal Lee Sutton

While I and the rest of the world mourn the death of Patrick Swayze, I hope the death of another amazing and important figure in American history doesn’t slip through the cracks. Today the AP is reporting the death of Crystal Lee Sutton, labor organizer and activist for the working class, whose story of fighting to unionize textile plants in the South was depicted in the film “Norma Rae.”
From the AP:

In 1973, Sutton was a 33-year-old mother of three earning $2.65 an hour folding towels at J.P. Stevens when a manager fired her for pro-union activity.
In a final act of defiance before police hauled her out, Sutton, who had worked at the plant for 16 years, wrote “UNION” on a piece of cardboard and climbed onto a table on the plant floor. Other employees responded by shutting down their machines.

Even though Sally Field won a best-actress Academy Award for playing the character inspired by Ms. Sutton, the AP reports today that she never made much profit off the movie. I wonder if that was because the film execs didn’t give her her fair due, or because she was too much “of the people” to get rich from the story. Or some other unknown reason.
Either way, she is completely bad-ass and her work is inspirational to me. As a female labor organizer in the 70’s fighting against low pay and poor working conditions for “ordinary people,” both black and white, she was certainly a trailblazer.
May she rest in peace.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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  • jeana

    I just read part of a blog entry from some idiot who calls himself “MarkyMark” who can only refer to women as “bitches” (I asked him if his mom was a bitch too, although I doubt he’ll post that comment) and who claims that American women just don’t want to work. We’ve all been sold a bunch of bull from feminists about “work”, lazy bums that we are. I could only read a little of it before being utterly disgusted at his hateful misogyny. And then I read this entry about Crystal Lee Sutton and knowing there are women like her actually helped me to shake off my anger. I’m sorry she died. Thank you for writing about her.

  • ginasf

    And this warrior woman largely died because her insurance company death squad didn’t approve her cancer treatment soon enough. An real American hero.

  • Comrade Kevin

    The South, regrettably, has always been staunchly anti-Union. I think partially this is a result of the region being overwhelmingly poor and fearing that union activity would ruin a good thing. My Grandfather was one of the original working class whites who left yeoman farming for the textile mill.
    Part of it is also that politicians and leaders alike have historically pitted poor whites against poor blacks in an effort to prevent the elites from having to give up their power base. In the late nineteenth century, there were genuine efforts made to organize working whites and working blacks together into a Populist movement, but these efforts were violently broken up by sowing dissent and, if that failed, killing the leaders. It’s a sad legacy and one still felt keenly today.

  • melaniemrms

    Check out Connie Schultz’s column on her. It’s worth a read.

  • Devoted_Toucan

    ^ Made me teary, ha.
    Hopefully the world will always have women like her.
    Think I’ll check out that movie.