The grace of Hollywood and national fame exalted Crystal Lee Sutton, the real-life Norma Rae, but did not deliver her.
Fired from a string of minimum-wage textile mill jobs and, until recently, taking home $29 a week in unemployment benefits, the woman who fights for workers' rights fights her own battles alone. But then, some may be against herself.
The 1979 Oscar-winning film "Norma Rae," based on Sutton's challenge to injustice in the textile plants, grossed $12.5 million; she had to sue to get a small share, and now it's gone. From "Crystal Lee," the book on her life, she got nothing.
From the past 250 letters she sent out offering to lecture, Sutton got three bookings. Recently, she began a temporary part-time job selling film in a drive-up shopping center booth. But her heart remains in the textile mill where Hollywood portrayed her, squaring off with managers and high-speed looms.
Three days before last Christmas Sutton was laid off from a $3.35-an-hour job inspecting women's garments at a nonunion mill six miles away in Graham. Although her boss has hired other workers since, she cannot get her job back.
Actress Sally Field, who won her first Academy Award playing Sutton in the film and promised her help if ever she needed it, wouldn't return her calls.
No matter, Sutton says. She says she doesn't depend on movie stars or anybody else to do what she feels can only be done by workers themselves.
"If necessary, I'll sell every piece of furniture in the house, so long as we have a roof over our heads," Sutton said. "I don't care. People are going to long know where I'm coming from: I believe working people need to join together, and the only thing they got going for them now is a union."
Sutton, 44, shares with her husband, Lewis Preston Sutton Jr., the only brick house on Elvira Street, a row of humble clapboard mill village dwellings planted in the shadow of Burlington Industries' Mayfair factory.
He landed a union job in the shipping department of Cone Mills' plant in Haw River, N.C., and makes $6 an hour. She keeps up the house and takes calls from people wanting to know where to go, how to begin to set up a union and "how to deal with their boss man."
In a recent interview, she pulled her feet up into a living-room chair, her soft brown hair, long and wavy, tumbling down to her waist. Her face was mirrored behind her in a charcoal sketch featuring the Solidarity union banner. It was drawn by a Pole who had been in jail with Lech Walesa and now lives in Atlanta. It hangs above a poem another worker wrote about her and engraved on a brass plaque. She never met either man.
Sutton is always ready to talk to any group that wants to hear her story.
In 1973, she was fired from her job while working with union organizers at the J.P. Stevens textile factory in Roanoke Rapids, N.C. In a moment immortalized by the movie, Sutton, instead of leaving the plant, took a piece of cardboard, wrote "UNION" in felt-tipped marker, climbed onto her bench and held up the sign.
For the first time since she started working there, she heard the machines shut down, and as she looked around workers held up the two-fingered V-for-Victory salute.
In 1974, they voted a union into the plant. But Sutton was already gone.
After the movie was made, she hired a lawyer and got a settlement of $52,000 from 20th Century-Fox for the Norma Rae story. Taxes took half of it, she said. With some of what was left, she paid off loans and bought her husband a used Pontiac Trans-Am. "He helped me and supported me through all this, and he deserved something," she said.
"I told my wife I don't give a damn if we have to live in a car, I'm proud of what she done and what she stood for," Preston Sutton said. "You better damn well believe there's a lot of people that would like to have the guts to do what she did." They met in Roanoke Rapids, and decided to move to Burlington, the capital city of the southern textile industry, a plain-faced town of bare brick walls and railroad tracks, power lines and relentless truck traffic. Since she came, she has held and lost jobs "innumerable times." Typically, she said, if mill owners don't recognize her before she's hired, it isn't long before word travels around the shop floor. Then she's laid off. Or made to quit.
Her bosses dispute that.
"We just don't do business that way," said Don Scott Jr., owner of the last mill that laid Sutton off. "We aren't picking on her . . . That girl needs to sit down and take a good look in the mirror."
Sutton lost her job at Scott's Randon Sewing Mill in Graham when she was laid off just before Christmas. In January she developed foot trouble, she said, but Scott told her the job would be waiting when she was well.
When she came back in April, however, Scott "was crying hard times about foreign imports" and told her she could not return as an inspector, Sutton said. Scott did offer her a sewing job, but when he stipulated that she would have to meet production quotas in a trial period, she refused.
Sutton said she was never told she was laid off or fired for her talk of unions. "They would be stupid to say that, because I would have a great case for the labor board," she said. "Actions speak louder than words. They will totally destroy you."
Sutton said she's been isolated from workers, prevented from using the same water fountain and told not to talk to other workers because it holds up production. "I've never started a job anywhere with the intention of starting a union," Sutton said. "But any time I work in a place where people complain of a problem, I tell them they need a union. I wouldn't be me if I didn't tell them . . . "
Yet Sutton acknowledges she's had problems working even for the union. For a time she was an organizer with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, but later filed a grievance against the union and quit.
"They were paying me one salary and I was working two jobs," she says.
"She was so gung-ho," said a union lawyer who once worked with Sutton. "She wanted to jump on this company for firing this guy because of his union activity, when we didn't have any evidence that was the case.
"But sometimes you need someone like that to get something done."
After being laid off last December, Sutton says, she decided to get a copy of "Norma Rae" she could use in speaking to groups and building up an independent speaking schedule.
20th Century-Fox Studios told her she could get a videocassette with no problem. But Sutton wrote back that she needed a 16mm print because most of the places she would speak would probably have only an old projector. She got no answer.
That's when she remembered Sally Field's promise.
It came during Sutton's only trip to California, a meeting of the real character and the actress to promote the movie in 1980. Sutton remembers meeting Field at the reception, cameras flashing all around them, posing with their hands held high together in triumph.
"We talked about children," Sutton said. "She told me if ever there was anything she could do for me let her know."
In May, Sutton tried to reach Field, but got only as far as her publicist, Pat Kingsly.
"She said she wanted Sally to call her," Kingsly said. "Sally was in the middle of packing." She was going to Italy with her husband, producer Alan Griesman, and children, Kingsly said. Field asked Kingsly to phone Sutton to find out what she wanted, and Sutton said again that she wanted to speak with Field.
"Sally said, 'I'm really sorry but I've just got to get out of town,' " Kingsly quoted her as saying. She relayed the message to Sutton.
"I said I didn't care what she was doing, there's such a thing as a pay telephone, and she can call me collect," Sutton said. "She can't be any busier than I am. I am a married woman. Between me and my husband, we got five kids and one grandchild. And I'm looking for work. And I return my calls."
A certified letter Sutton sent June 11 to 20th Century-Fox inquiring about getting a 16mm print has gone unanswered, she said.
The mill owners "don't care about people like me," Sutton says, and the movie people, "they forget.
"They're into their own world," Sutton said. "You know, people that are into this high-class living don't know what life's all about. But that's their problem.
"Sometimes it really burns you out," she said. "But you can't let it get you down."
That's part of the message Sutton brings when she's invited to colleges and union halls. Recently, a union organization in the Soviet Union flew her over to tell the story of the real Norma Rae. Unlike the one depicted in the movie, Sutton's story has no ending.
"They say money is the root of all evil, and I think that's true," she said.
"Ain't no way these companies are going to get to heaven, the way they done me. They're going to have to ask the Lord to forgive them. Lord knows, it's going to be hard for me, too."