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Crystal Lee Sutton, real-life Norma Rae, dead at 68

September 21, 2009 |  3:47 pm


Contrary to the 1979 movie "Norma Rae" that made her union fight famous, Crystal Lee Sutton never went skinny dipping with her union mentor, played in the film by actor Ron Leibman. But when she was fired from her job at the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., she did hoist herself on top of a table on the factory floor and hold up a handmade sign that said "UNION" for all her fellow workers to see. And she was hauled off the floor kicking and screaming, just as Sally Field was in the Martin Ritt-directed movie.

The only concession the factory bosses may have made to their unruly employee came after they told Sutton to go home and Sutton told them they'd have to make her go. As quoted in Victoria Byerly's 1986 book "Hard Times Cotton Mill Girls," the fiery activist told the men in the front office: "If you do call the cops, you're going to have to call the chief of police because my husband is a jealous man and he won't let me ride home with just anybody." The chief happened to be her first cousin's husband, but he did her no favors. He took her to jail. 

Watch a clip from "Norma Rae" after the jump...

-- Elaine Woo

Photo: Sally Field appears in an iconic scene from the 1979 film "Norma Rae." Field won a best actress Oscar for her role as a gritty young woman who attempts to unionize a Southern textile mill. Credit: Associated Press