Louise Brown, 84, and Vera Smalls, 72, were among the 12 women at Charleston’s Medical College Hospital in 1969 who refused to air their grievances about low wages and long hours individually, as their supervisors insisted they do. They had banded together and wanted to show solidarity.
So they were fired.
When on March 20 other nurses and nurse assistants heard about the dismissals, pent-up frustrations and months of meetings and planning came to a head: They went on strike, insisting the hospital rehire the dozen protesters and consider their complaints.
That was 50 years ago. At Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston on Saturday, the Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the renewed Poor People’s Campaign, honored the strikers and announced the launch of a coast-to-coast bus tour meant to draw attention to the nation’s 95 million Americans considered poor or low-income.
The number of Americans in poverty has increased by 60 percent, to 40.6 million, since the late 1960s, according to an Institute of Policy Studies report prepared for the Poor People's Campaign. The majority of America's poor, more than 17 million people, are white; poor blacks number 9.2 million; and about 11 million of the country's poor are Latinos, according to the report.
“This movement is not about the puny language of left vs. right,” Barber said. It’s a moral movement about right vs. wrong. “We are trying to conserve justice and liberally spread it to everyone.”
Barber, architect of the Moral Monday Movement and a charismatic speaker who drew attention at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, is head of the social justice organization Repairers of the Breach. He has partnered with the Rev. Liz Theoharis, founder and co-director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice on the Poor People’s Campaign, which is meant to continue the work that Martin Luther King Jr. began in 1968, shortly before he was assassinated.
The effort was launched officially last spring with a large rally in Washington, D.C., and many more events in state capitals, including Columbia. Brown attended the Columbia gathering and was arrested for civil disobedience.
On Saturday, she said that many of the problems nurses faced in 1969 — low pay, racism, job insecurity, mistreatment — persist today among millions of the country’s poor.
“We cannot stop here,” she said. “We worked for better wages, we’re doing the same thing in 2019.”
Barber said the hospital workers strike, which involved employees at both the Medical College Hospital and Charleston County Hospital was a key event of the Poor People’s Campaign launched by King and continued by his colleagues in the Southern Christian leadership Conference and by his widow Coretta Scott King.
“It began as a dispute between employers and employees, but became an international issue,” he said. “We didn’t come here for a commemoration, we came here for a re-engagement. We don’t celebrate freedom fighters, we join them. ... It’s not enough to remember what they’ve done. If they stood then, surely we must stand now.”
Barber called on politicians who claim to honor King and his legacy to embrace his agenda.
“You don’t get a pass when you bring down the (Confederate) flag but don’t raise up living wages,” he said.
Theoharis said social progress always meets resistance, but that the hospital workers strike shows that change is possible.
The strike lasted 113 days. About 450 people from the Medical College and 80 from Charleston County Hospital joined the effort. The Local 1199B hospital union branch was established. Strikers boycotted local businesses to apply economic pressure that might prompt merchants to push the hospitals to reach a settlement.
John Reynolds, an activist with SCLC, was tasked with enforcing the boycott. He’d strike a cowbell along King Street to get the attention of anyone tempted to patronize the shops, he said.
Coretta Scott King, honorary chairwoman of the hospital union, came to march down Ashley Avenue, joined by Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy, leaders of SCLC. Abernathy was jailed in Charleston on a charge of inciting riot and spent half the strike behind bars.
Eventually, the two sides struck a deal, though no official contract was signed, only a memorandum of agreement. The nurses received a modest raise and a grievance procedure was set in place.
The outcome was hailed as a victory. The strikers’ complaints were acknowledged.
And this recognition creates the possibility for more, Theoharis said. All that’s required is persistence.
“It shows that people coming together have the power to be heard. ... For me, what’s important is for us to see that this is how change actually happens. Recognizing and commemorating and re-committing to a struggle, like the hospital workers strike, offers great lessons and hope.”