Last week, a major civil rights-era event in Charleston, the 1969 Hospital Workers Strike, was recognized with a historic marker. The marker, a product of the Preservation Society’s “Seven to Save” program, was unveiled by strike organizer Mary Moultrie at Ashley Avenue near the Medical University’s Basic Science Building.
The occasion was met with general appreciation. The strike arguably was Charleston’s most significant civil rights event. Though no union branch was officially recognized, the protest helped rectify local pay inequities and employee mistreatment, and it sparked a nationwide labor movement to unionize hospital workers.
But there was one problem: The marker’s text got history wrong.
The brief description of the strike, which appears on both sides of the silver forged-metal marker, disturbed several participants, who complained that important individuals had not been named and that not enough credit had been given to local organizers.
But the line that riled Moultrie, strike negotiator Bill Saunders and marchers such as Robert Mitchell and union organizer Henry Nicholas the most was this one: “Protests were marred by violence, and Gov. Robert McNair called out the National Guard and set a curfew.”
“There was no violence,” they all said.
That sentence, written by Tracy Power, coordinator of the S.C. Historical Marker Program at the Department of Archives and History, was not intentionally inflammatory. It was an attempt to explain the deployment of the National Guard concisely.
“It was entirely unintended,” Power said. “I was trying to say in a few words why the government would call out the National Guard.”
Perhaps the sentence should have read, “Due to a threat of violence,” he added.
“I could have worded it better,” Power said, apologizing for any inadvertent offense he might have committed.
He said he would happily work with the Preservation Society to fix the sign.
Aurora Harris, community outreach manager for the Preservation Society, spearheaded the project, which has resulted in the installation of five civil rights-era historical markers in the city. Harris said a small committee of historians worked to create an initial draft of the text, which did not include any mention of violence committed by protestors.
The text then went through a review and revision process in order to ensure it met certain standards.
One hard-and-fast rule is that no living person can be recognized by name on a marker, she and Power said. A general rule is to wait about 50 years before events are recognized in this way, though exceptions can be made, Power said.
The reference to violence was especially troublesome to strike participants because it fit a long-standing pattern of blaming the victims, they said. Protest violence during the civil rights movement often was committed by segregationists or law enforcement, yet it was the passive resistors who got arrested, injured or killed.
Saunders said he thought the marker was a good idea, though its text oversimplified a complicated event in which many people played important roles. And, he said, the maker seemed to give too much credit to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, even though local organizers had laid the ground work for the strike beginning two years earlier.
The marker doesn’t sufficiently describe what happened and why, he said. “What they’re doing is actually sanitizing history.”
Power said a new sign would cost $1,920, money the Preservation Society would have to come up with.
Harris said she’s discussing with the foundry that made the marker whether it is possible to rework the erroneous passage on the existing sign in an effort to spend less money.
Whatever the solution, Power said he’d do his part.
“If there’s a desire to replace this with a better text, I would be delighted to help make that happen,” he said.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.