Act of Courage
Remembering the real Norma Rae
by Bob Bussel
Crystal Lee Sutton, the textile worker and union activist whose experience was dramatized in the movie Norma Rae, died several weeks ago at age 68.
During the late 1970s, I worked for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union as the New Jersey coordinator for the national consumer boycott of J. P. Stevens, the company that employed Crystal Lee Sutton. J. P. Stevens was the Walmart of its day and notorious as a serial violator of labor law and workers’ rights.
I had the opportunity to meet Crystal Lee Sutton when she came to New Jersey as part of a national tour following the movie’s premiere. According to some of my union colleagues, Crystal Lee did not always adapt easily to her role as public spokesperson. She could be demanding in her relations with the union and was not as disciplined as campaign organizers would have preferred. A friend of mine who also saw her during this period recalls that she was uncomfortable when asked larger political or strategic questions. Like many of us, her life was marked by ambiguity and contradiction, no doubt accentuated by the gap between her real story and Sally Field’s mythic portrayal of her on the screen.
Shortly before her death, reflecting on the events that led to her being thrust into the spotlight, Crystal Lee recalled: "When I went in the plant with my union pin, you would have thought I had the plague, and that is when the trouble started. It was truly different because a woman had never done or dared to do such stuff."
Within the paternalistic culture of the Southern textile mill town, Crystal Lee’s actions, which in fact did include scrawling “union” on a sheet of cardboard and prompting her fellow workers to turn off their machines, were an audacious violation of cultural norms. As depicted in Norma Rae, the scene remains memorable for showing how an act of individual courage can inspire others to acts of solidarity, one of the most cherished values of the union movement. I am always moved to tears by that scene, as one by one the deafening roar of mill machines diminishes to near silence and workers revel in their collective defiance of the employer who has dominated their lives.
Many unions now give Norma Rae awards to honor courage and activism among their members, and I have no problem with giving these awards in the name of a fictional person. However, we should not forget that Norma Rae was a real person, Crystal Lee Sutton, who in a shining moment showed us the meaning of courage, the power of solidarity and, perhaps most importantly, the capacity of trade unionism to enable ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things.
Bob Bussel is an associate professor and director of the Labor Education and Research Center at UO.