Mark Jordan, a lanky housepainter whose…
Mark Jordan, a lanky housepainterwhose long hair iscut in mullet, walked to thefront of the assembly at the GlenwoodCommunity Center in Greensborodressed in a blue pullover, brownCarhartt pants and leather work boots.
He talked about the mother whotaught him to accept people of all races,the mother who sent tracts about alcoholismto him in Hawaii because of anuncanny sense that he was drinking, themother who he could always run thingspast. The mother who gave him advicethat that he didn’t always want.
Crystal Lee Sutton’s family filledthree rows of the small gymnasium.The other seats were filled with laboractivists and officials from across NorthCarolina and beyond. Jordan wanted toremind them that his mother was morethan the labor icon and working-classheroine, more than the inspiration for aHollywood storyline.
“She said, ‘You know what: I didn’tdo it for the money; I did it for the people,’”Jordan said. “People say, ‘Yourmama’s the real Norma Rae. She’s rich.’I say, ‘No, it ain’t about that.’”Sutton, who died last September atthe age of 68 after a long illness, washonored in Greensboro by her laborunion friends. Her name was praisedby the president of the union for whomshe organized in the 1970s, by the presidentsof the North Carolina AFL-CIOs,by postal carriers and textile workers. Alaudatory letter was read from workersin the Philippines who took inspirationfrom her. Many of the old labor hymnswere sung.
Thanks to Hollywood, Sutton ismainly known today for her role inthe successful JP Stevens organizingcampaign in Roanoke Rapids. Stevenswas a textile company whose economicclout and influence over its employees’lives matched that of Cone Mills inGreensboro.
Sutton’s sass and militancy is encapsulatedin a scene portrayed by SallyFields in the 1979 movie Norma Rae inwhich she emerges from the boss’ officeafter being ordered off the premisesfor insisting on writing down the exactwords of a racially divisive anti-unionflier posted by management in the breakroom. She hastily scrawls the word“union” on a piece of cardboard, climbson a table and slowly turns around asshe waits for the police to arrive andarrest her.
John Wilhelm, the president of theUNITE-HERE union, said he didn’tknow Sutton personally, but he headsthe union for which she organized byvirtue of a series of mergers in whichthe Amalgamated Clothing and TextileWorkers Union was absorbed intoUNITE, which in turn joined the HotelEmployees and Restaurant EmployeesInternational Union.
A labor chief endowed with a gruffand jovial voice and wearing a plainsuit and tie, he talked about going toschool in segregated Virginia as the sonof a woman who campaigned for civilrights, about heading a union whosemembership is majority female.
“It takes courage for any worker tostand up and fight the boss in an antiunionAmerica,” he said. “But it takesso much more for women who have tochallenge our society’s view of the roleof women, not only in the workplace,but very often they have to challengethat view even in their own families,sometimes with cataclysmic results.”Sutton’s role in the Stevens campaignstrained her marriage to the breakingpoint.
James Andrews, president of theNorth Carolina AFL-CIO, grew up inWarren County, next door to RoanokeRapids, where Sutton came up in thelabor movement. He spoke to theassembly in a booming black preacher’svoice, and turned to Jordan to acknowledgethat leadership almost alwaysexacts a toll of sacrifice on families.“You know these personal hardshipsand the pain better than anyone else inthis room,” Andrews said. “She’s beenthere for you, brother, and she’s beenthere for us.”
Andrews’ counterpart, South CarolinaAFL-CIO President Donna DeWitt,described what Sutton’s example meantto her as a young woman trying to findher way as a telephone operator in therural South.
“I was a 17-year-old going to work,and I could relate to the struggles thatshe had,” DeWitt said. “And I was in asmall town. These were the sixties. I’mso grateful that I can relate to her senseof injustice in the workplace, her concernfor workers. ‘Wow,’ I would think.‘Why didn’t I think of getting on a tablewith a sign that said ‘union’ and turningaround in that telephone office with 225operators? Why didn’t I think of that?’And I’m so proud that she did. All ofthis was whirling in my head, and I wasintroduced to her. And then I said tomyself: ‘Yes, I knew her.’ And I felt herpain, her struggle. She was an inspiration,and she’d given me the courage tobe who I was, and who I am.”
Sutton’s life was not transformedby her fleeting brush with Hollywoodfame, her longtime friend RichardKoritz said. Instead, she gained pleasureand esteem from friendships withpeople of ordinary means, and strengthfrom withstanding insult and adversity.“
Crystal’s life was not filled witha lot of days like this,” said Koritz, alabor radical dressed in a suit who ownsa brash voice that reverberates withNorthern cadence. “Crystal’s life wasfilled with people talking shit abouther behind her back, people ostracizingher. In the film Crystal’s charactergoes to her minister wanting to have anintegrated union meeting at that church.And he says, ‘We’re sure going to missyou in the choir.’
Crystal had a wonderfulsinging voice. And Crystal said,‘You’ll hear my voice rising up somewhereelse.’ That’s a lot of pressure.I’m not one of those folks that is of theChristian persuasion, but all of you thatare know the kind of tremendous pressurethat being ostracized by your owncan put on you to back you up, to pushyou back into your place.
“So to me, the most remarkable thingabout Crystal Lee Sutton was her rawcourage,” Koritz continued. “Whenyou’re in a college environment itdoesn’t take a heck of a lot of courage.A little bit maybe, to have the courageof your convictions. But when you’rein it from the working class and youthreaten the profits of the people thatrun your town, your city, your state,then you know that if you’re going toact according to the courage of yourconvictions, then every dirty, rottentrick is going to be pulled on you. Andsome of it’s going to come from directionsthat you have no idea that it’sgoing to come.” !