The Lives They Lived
Crystal Lee Sutton: The Organizer
By MAGGIE JONES
A Southern cotton-mill girl was not supposed to grumble too loudly. In
the early 1970s, when every other major U.S. industry was largely
unionized, a mill girl earned less than $2.80 an hour and worked six
days a week. The floors beneath her shook from the rows of wooden
looms that roared like oncoming steam trains. She worked as a spinner,
a doffer, a side hemmer, a terry loader. If she was particularly
unlucky, her job was near the hopper feeders — the men who pulled
apart the 500-pound bales of Mississippi Delta cotton, creating thick
clouds of lint. The fiber would eventually be woven into fine towels
and brocade tablecloths for four-star hotels. But in the mill, the
lint dust coated a worker's skin, her hair, the sandwich in her lunch.
It went down her throat and into her lungs.
Crystal Lee Sutton was an 11th grader in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., when
she got her first job at J. P. Stevens & Company on the 4-to-midnight
shift, feeding shuttles of yarn into fast-paced looms. She had other
dreams. She wanted to join the Army, move beyond Roanoke Rapids,
travel the world. But she was born a mill girl in a town with seven
mills owned by one company, where her grandparents, her mother and her
father all worked. J. P. Stevens also owned every shotgun house in
Sutton's neighborhood. The high-school curriculum included courses on
how to be a weaver and a loom fixer. Mill life felt inevitable, like a
genetic trait passed down generation to generation.
Fighting fate requires courage. In Sutton's case, restlessness helped,
too. When the Textile Workers Union of America showed up in Roanoke
Rapids, Sutton (at the time, her married name was Jordan) was a
32-year-old mother of three on her second marriage. (Her first husband
was killed in a car accident when she was just 20 years old with a
4-month-old son.) She had tried being a homemaker; it bored her. And
her new job folding hand towels in the mill wasn't all that much
As she would tell Henry P. Leifermann, the author of "Crystal Lee: A
Woman of Inheritance," around the time she saw a union poster hanging
in the mill in 1973, she had been thinking about the paltry wages, the
bone-tiring work and the stingy benefits that she and her parents had
suffered. She wanted something better for her children.
The day after she went to her first union meeting, held in a black
church where Sutton was one of only two whites attending, Sutton wore
a five-inch-wide red-and-white button to work that declared, "I'm for
TWUA." In the mill she carried a book called "What the Company Will Do
for You." Inside, the pages were blank. She held union meetings in her
house. She talked union with mill hands before and after work and
during her 20-minute breaks. Eli Zivkovich, who was sent by the TWUA
to organize Roanoke Rapids, would later say that in his 20 years as an
organizer he had never known anyone who matched Sutton's zeal.
Not all of Roanoke Rapids was impressed. She was called a whore and
treated like a pariah. Southern textile workers had a long history of
resisting labor organizing. They had been fed anti-union rhetoric
since childhood — from the pulpit and in the classroom. The union
would be a tool for black power; a union victory would shut down every
mill. When you are poor and desperate, a bad job is better than no
Unless you were Crystal Lee Sutton. On a humid afternoon in May 1973,
Zivkovich asked Sutton to copy an anti-union letter posted on mill
bulletin boards that claimed, among other things, that blacks would
run the union. Supervisors had warned workers not to copy information
from the bulletin boards. But they also must have been eager for an
excuse to get rid of Sutton.
During a work break that night, Sutton took her clipboard and stood in
front of a bulletin board. Soon two supervisors were behind her, and
then a third. They told Sutton to stop writing, but she kept at it.
When the general supervisor said he would fire her and call the
police, Sutton continued until she was done. Then she tucked the
papers into her bra.
The police were, indeed, on their way. As Sutton walked to her
worktable, she saw a police officer coming across the work floor.
Knowing she had only minutes left, Sutton grabbed a black magic marker
and a piece of stiff cardboard. In big block letters she wrote the
word UNION. Then she hoisted herself onto her worktable and held the
sign above her head with both hands. Slowly, she turned around so that
the entire room, filled with side hemmers and terry cutters, could
see. Dozens of mill hands stopped working and watched her. Several
gave her the V sign, for victory. Others held their fists in the air.
(Years later, Sally Field re-enacted that moment in what became an
iconic scene in "Norma Rae," which was inspired by Sutton's life.)
Still, it would be another year before the union won the right to
represent the workers. And another seven years before J. P. Stevens
signed a union contract for 3,000 workers in Roanoke Rapids. That 1980
contract raised mill workers' pay to $5 an hour on average and created
safety and health policies, as well as seniority rules. And though
Sutton alone was not responsible for the union's success, her
determination that night in May 1973 had invigorated the fight.
Sutton spent the next years in several low-wage jobs — at a fast-food
chicken restaurant, as a hotel maid. In the early '80s, she traveled
all over the country as a spokeswoman for the union. But the most
meaningful work was always closer to home. In the months after she was
fired from J. P. Stevens, she finally became the woman she wanted to
be, she said. Day after day she stood outside of the mills with other
supporters, handing out leaflets and union buttons. As workers filed
past her into the mill, she was dressed in jeans and a TWUA
sweatshirt, her long brown hair flowing behind her. "Hey, please sign
that union card," she would say in a Southern cadence both honeyed and
firm. "I'm going to be here until you sign that card."
Maggie Jones is a contributing writer for the magazine.