Something momentous happened in Charleston 44 years ago, something that was at once a result of the changing emphasis of the civil rights movement and a trigger for broader, national transformation.
In March 1969, after two years of local organizing efforts, hospital workers at the Medical College Hospital (today the Medical University of South Carolina) went on strike. They were unhappy about discriminatory practices, unequal pay, institutional harassment and widespread racial discord.
Mary Moultrie, a Burke High School graduate and licensed nurse, whose credentials were not fully recognized by the Medical University when it employed her in 1967, decided to take action. She organized informal get-togethers, sought advice from Septima Poinsette Clark and invited community leaders such as Bill Saunders to join the fight. Saunders would become a lead negotiator, confronting hospital president William McCord and working, often productively, with hospital vice president William Huff, who proved to be an ally of the strikers.
“They wanted to be treated fairly as human beings,” he said.
Before long, Henry Nicholas, president of the Hospital and Nursing Home Employees union, AFL-CIO (1199) showed up, funded the strikers and helped facilitate the unionization process.
The strike lasted 113 days. About 450 people from the Medical College and 80 from Charleston County Hospital joined the effort. The first hospital union branch in the nation, Local 1199B, was established. Tensions in the city rose. Negotiations ensued, often acrimonious, sometimes promising.
Coretta Scott King, honorary chairwoman of the hospital union, came to march down Ashley Avenue. So did Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy, leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Abernathy, president of the SCLC, was jailed in Charleston on a charge of inciting riot, though no serious violence erupted during this tense period.
That history was recognized on Tuesday when an historic marker was unveiled on the Medical University campus, paying tribute to those who risked their careers and incomes to improve working conditions.
Moultrie, now 71 and slowing down because of a heart condition, unveiled the marker Tuesday after offering her remarks in the Basic Science Building Auditorium.
The marker is the last of five to be installed by the Preservation Society of Charleston in recognition of important civil rights era events and places. It’s part of the “Seven to Save” initiative, which began in 2011 and identified seven projects that year, including “Civil Rights Era Sites.” (Other projects were named in 2012 and 2013.)
The strike can be understood as part of the movement’s accelerating shift toward economic justice issues during the last half of the 1960s. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had established that black people were to be treated equally under the law. But implementing the law was another matter, and the thick residue of Jim Crow was proving difficult to scrub away.
The strike did something else, too: it inspired hospital workers (and others) across the country and helped clear the way for the formation of other local union branches. All the country’s health care workers seeking fair pay and equal treatment looked to Charleston as a beacon of change, Nicholas said.
At the afternoon ceremony, Moultrie spoke eloquently about the strike and events leading up to it — about the nightly rallies, the boycotts, the quiet closed-door meetings, the grass-roots participation of the Ministerial Alliance, the attempts to influence management.
The state, prohibited from bargaining with the union, would not fulfill all the protestors’ demands, offering instead a compromise that modestly raised wages and established a grievance procedure.
“We did not get a bona fide contract,” Moultrie said. “We got a memorandum of agreement.”
Since the strike, much has changed, she said. The progress is visible.
“The difference is they have oodles of young black RNs, and a lot of positions that were originally all-white are now filled with blacks,” she said. “So there is some improvement there.”
But there are still lessons to be learned, she went on. Discrimination still can be a problem in the workplace. And people who complain about it don’t always take necessary and appropriate action.
“We’ve got a long way to come,” she said.
Saunders said that, before the strike, nurse’s aids, housekeepers and janitors, cafeteria workers and other low-level employees ate their meals in the boiler room. “They got paid according to how much your supervisor liked you,” which was typically below minimum wage, he said. They were given no formal job description that set parameters and protected them from exploitation. After the strike, the hospital adjusted wages, provided job descriptions and granted all employees full access to the facilities.
Nicholas, now 77 and still working hard, came to Charleston from Detroit in 1969 to support the protest, which galvanized national attention, he said.
Coretta Scott King made an important symbolic contribution to the fight because the majority of hospital workers were women, Nicholas said.
Nicholas also was senior vice president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union that represented civil servants such as sanitation workers. And he collaborated with Martin Luther King Jr. on projects that sought to address intransigent economic problems. He was with King several days before the SCLC leader departed for Memphis in April 1968 to throw his support behind striking garbage collectors.
The fight for economic justice had been part of the civil rights struggle for a long time. In Charleston, that struggle came to a head in 1969.
“In essence, (the hospital strike) launched the national union into its permanent role across country,” Nicholas said.
Saunders said he appreciated the effort to acknowledge the event with an historic marker, but took issue with the wording of the monument, which cites violence that never occurred, fails to name Mary Moultrie and gives too much credit to the SCLC, even though local organizers had laid the groundwork 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.”
The marker is a good idea, he said. “I wouldn’t protest the one that’s there.” But it would have been better to emphasize local accomplishments. “It only takes a line or two.”
The Preservation Society’s Aurora Harris said the text was first prepared by a group of historians, then adjusted by the State Historic Preservation Office to conform to across-the-board standards and rules (for example, no living person can be named) and to abide by space limitations. Several people in the community, including Saunders were given a chance to review the final draft, but that was two years ago, Harris said.
Moultrie said the outcome of the strike is evidence of the continuing need for worker protections.
“I’m a union person,” she said. “We need a union in South Carolina, regardless of the law or policy that South Carolina cannot bargain with unions. Something needs to be changed, something needs to be done. ‘Right to work’ — a whole lot of people don’t even know what that means.”
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.