Hospital strike remembered, current issues addressed

Coretta Scott King leads a march in support of striking hospital workers on April 30, 1969. Mary Moultrie (left) and Rosetta Simmons walked arm-in-arm with King for hours that day.

In March 1969, workers unhappy about discriminatory practices, unequal pay, institutional harassment and widespread racial discord at the Medical College Hospital went on strike.

The 113-day walkout was a watershed moment for the city of Charleston - and the state - during the pitched years of the civil rights movement. It was a manifestation of the movement's emphasis on economic justice during the latter part of the 1960s.

On Thursday, participants of the strike and civic leaders gathered on the campus of what is now the Medical University of South Carolina to commemorate this 45-year milestone with an outdoor observance meant to honor the strike's veterans and draw attention to current issues.

Speakers acknowledged the progress made since 1969, and raised several broad social and economic concerns.

State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, said he would like to see more black doctors at local hospitals and black lobbyists advancing community interests at the Statehouse.

"The past should always reflect the future," he said. "That's how we gauge how far we've come and how far we need to go."

In introductory remarks, community leader Thomas Dixon said the strike resulted in improved conditions and prompted the hospital to recruit black students and faculty, "but it fell short of its goals."

It did not establish union representation and, all these years later, black workers still are clustered in low-paying positions, he said.

The strike was the culmination of nearly two years of organizing and protest.

Mary Moultrie, a licensed nurse whose credentials were not fully recognized by the Medical College, organized informal get-togethers, sought advice from Septima P. Clark and invited community leaders, such as Bill Saunders, to join the fight. Saunders would become a lead organizer and negotiator.

About 450 people from the Medical College and 80 from Charleston County Hospital joined the effort. They set up a chapter (Local 1199B) of the Hospital and Nursing Home Employees union, but it wasn't recognized by the state.

Coretta Scott King, honorary chairwoman of the hospital union, came to march down Ashley Avenue, joined by Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy, leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The state, prohibited from bargaining with the union, would not fulfill all the protesters' demands, offering instead a compromise that modestly raised wages and established a grievance procedure.

"We did not get a bona fide contract," Moultrie said last year when a historic marker was unveiled on campus. "We got a memorandum of agreement."

Moultrie was a scheduled speaker at Thursday's event but felt too ill to attend, according to Saunders, who filled in for her.

He recounted the struggle and fretted that young people today don't know their history. Yet serious challenges persist, and in some ways society has regressed, he said.

"It's going to take some heavy lifting," Saunders said.

Medical University representatives joined the event and released a statement:

"MUSC recognizes the historic importance of the 1969 hospital strike and is pleased to support a commemorative event on our campus. Much progress has been made since 1969, and we embrace the need for continued diligence to ensure that fairness governs the campus environment. To that end, diversity is a strategic priority of MUSC."

Spokeswoman Heather Woolwine elaborated on the statement, saying there is a formal Strategic Plan for Diversity and Inclusion underway involving people from each of MUSC's divisions.

A letter to faculty and staff from Interim President Mark Sothmann stated that each group will focus on five areas: recruitment, education and training, metrics and outcomes, engagement and inclusion, and communications and community outreach.

The Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III, of Charity Missionary Baptist Church, who also serves as vice president of stakeholder relations for the NAACP, called attention to the moral dimension of the strike and the issues it meant to address.

"Now, as then, we have a moral problem," he said, linking the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to issues faced today, such as access to health care and economic disparities.

"The challenge we have now is we have a state that refused to expand Medicaid. It's not a political issue; it's a moral issue. The strike was also a moral issue," he said. "The challenge for us is to continue to focus on right vs. wrong instead of right vs. left."

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at facebook/aparkerwriter.