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Coretta Scott King at Charleston hospital strike march: Like Selma, Memphis, 'a national test'

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Police and National Guardsmen monitor a demonstration by striking hospital workers, their supporters and local clergy. File/Staff

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from the book "The Mayor: Joe Riley and the Rise of Charleston" by Brian Hicks. 

April 30, 1969

The troops had rolled into Charleston a few days earlier.

There were more than 500 National Guardsmen patrolling the streets in green fatigues and combat helmets, carrying rifles with bayonets, their armored vehicles parked on Calhoun Street alongside Ford Fairlanes and Volkswagen Beetles. The governor had deployed them as back-up for an overworked police department in a city once again under siege. Charleston had not seen such a military presence in more than 100 years, the last time the city commanded the nation’s attention. Set against a backdrop of sun and palmetto trees, the troops — and their armored personnel carriers — were familiar echoes of another lost cause being fought at that very moment on the other side of the world.

The Guardsmen were primarily a precaution. The protesters had proven mostly passive, walking the streets in paper union hats, a few carrying simple handmade signs. The politicians just assumed trouble would result from the ongoing hospital strike, now in its sixth week. State officials were nervous, mainly because the vast majority of these protesters were black — agitators, they called them. Despite those fears, Charleston had suffered little more than some mindless vandalism: a few fires, a rock thrown through the window of Edwards 5-and-10.

Earlier in the week, demonstrators had blocked the entrance to the Francis Marion Hotel at the corner of King and Calhoun in the heart of downtown. Twenty-five teenagers were arrested, most of them promptly returned to their parents. Police Chief John Conroy had neither the inclination nor the room to hold protesters for long. But that would soon change. The old county jail on the banks of the Cooper River was being cleaned up to make room for the eventual, and expected, overflow of inmates. Another precaution.

The temporary blockade of the Francis Marion came at the end of a march that had crossed the historic district, through the Four Corners of Law, bringing the civil rights movement to the doorstep of City Hall and within earshot of the rich neighborhoods South of Broad. Six weeks of these protests had cut into the business of downtown merchants. Save for the occasional march, the streets were largely deserted. Most people had decided to stay away from Charleston until the trouble passed.

Things would get worse before they improved.

On this day, Coretta Scott King was in town to lead yet another march, an event that attracted the network news and The New York Times. King was appeared as a show of solidarity and support for more than 500 workers — most of them poor, nearly all of them black — from the Medical College and the county hospital. These “non-professional” workers were being paid 30 cents below the federal minimum wage, and they had had enough. They were fighting for fairness, for equal treatment, for dignity. This did not go over well with hospital administrators or the local power structure. The dozen or so workers who organized the union, and the ensuing strike, were promptly fired.

Since then, the hospital district had become one large protest rally, the police working overtime to handle the daily picketing. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference arrived with reinforcements, and the slain civil rights leader’s successor, Ralph David Abernathy, was quickly arrested. When Coretta Scott King arrived on April 29, Abernathy was still in the Charleston County Jail. He refused to post bail.

Abernathy had been arrested for violating one of the ludicrous rules imposed on the protesters. A judge decided there could be no more than 10 people on the picket line at any time, and all of them had to remain within a spot on the sidewalk only 20 yards wide. No other protesters could be within 500 yards of the hospitals. Mary Moultrie, one of the movement’s organizers, had been jailed for 11 days simply for ignoring this edict. Her arrest sparked a new protest outside the jail. Finally, the judge just let her go. Moultrie was not even fined.

Moultrie was free in time to greet Mrs. King, who arrived the night before the march to motivate a crowd of 3,000 at Emanuel AME Church — the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the South and home to some of the nation’s earliest civil rights pioneers. King compared the hospital workers’ plight to the labor dispute among garbage workers in Memphis, the strike her husband had been trying to resolve when he was killed a year earlier.

Standing in the pulpit at Mother Emanuel, King said the Charleston hospital strike had become a national test of purpose like Selma, Ala., and vowed, “I am in this historic struggle no matter what the consequences, no matter what sacrifices may be necessary.”

Those were strong words coming barely a year after her husband’s death. And it did little to calm the nerves of Charleston officials, especially Chief Conroy, who did not want to see his city torn apart by violence — or become infamous for the death of another member of the King family. Conroy, a fair man and moderate on issues of civil rights, worried about what his police force — which, like most southern police departments of the day, employed a fair share of bigots — might do if anyone got the least bit out of line.

***

Charleston of 1969 was an anachronism. Its 300th anniversary was just a year away, but it seemed all the clocks had stopped a century earlier. Once among the country’s largest and most sophisticated cities, it was now merely a small, quiet seacoast town most noteworthy for a large collection of antebellum homes protected by the nation’s first serious preservation movement. Although the city’s near-religious affinity for preservation was ahead of its time, some suspected this had more to do with a yearning for the way things once were than an appreciation for architecture.

Charleston had been the cultural center of the South in its heyday, a busy seaport, the summer home of wealthy planters. Once, it had been important. By the 1960s, however, many of those fine homes were in disrepair and the central business district was filled with aging, decrepit buildings and failing businesses. The folly of Reconstruction had done little for Charleston. The city was just another Civil War casualty.

The city’s lower peninsula still looked much as it did during the War Between the States, except that now many of the oversized homes had been subdivided into apartments. Few of Charleston’s residents needed 5,000-square-foot homes, or had the means to maintain them. Above Broad Street, the city was a mix of historic storefronts and a few modern chain stores. The greatest — perhaps only — signs of growth at the time were the new buildings going up around the Medical College. But the hospital could do little to remedy the city’s overall declining health.

It was nothing short of miraculous that Charleston had avoided the controversies of civil rights for so long. The city was literally built on slave labor. Charleston had been the port of entry for most enslaved Africans until the practice was outlawed in the early 19th century. Charleston’s role in the slave trade was, more than anything, a matter of convenience. At the height of the “peculiar institution” there were four million slaves in the United States, and a full 10 percent of them lived in South Carolina. These enslaved men and women produced the rice, cotton and indigo that made their owners rich. At one point African-Americans made up more than half the state’s population, and 36 percent of Charleston’s.

Despite the city’s role in the slave trade and its prominence in the Civil War — the first secession vote was cast at St. Andrew’s Hall, the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter — Charleston had never struggled with the civil rights movement. While Birmingham and Montgomery were torn apart by violence, Charleston sat idle through the fight for equal rights with little more than a few lunch counter sit-ins. There had always been an uneasy détente among black and white Charlestonians, as if matters of race were meant to be avoided. Such unpleasantness had no place in a polite town of Southern manners. And so the town limped along.

The hospital strike threatened to change all of that. When Moultrie and her colleagues demanded equal treatment and equal pay, it forced the community to face lingering inequities. It was not clear which made the city’s old guard more uncomfortable — confronting issues of race or labor unions, which had never been welcome in South Carolina. In some ways, the hospital strike felt like the death of old Charleston. Now the city was on a path to becoming just another divided Southern town.

***

Mrs. King set out from Morris Brown AME Church just before noon, wearing a finely pressed dress, fashionable sunglasses and a paper union hat. She held her head impossibly high, her posture almost regal as she passed sidewalks crowded 10 people deep. For most of the march, King walked arm-in-arm with Moultrie and Rosetta Simmons, a county hospital worker who was Moultrie’s counterpart. Nearly 2,000 people followed behind, the entire group circled by Conroy’s officers and dozens of newspaper photographers. It was a spectacle unlike anything Charleston had seen.

King issued a statement to the press just before the march began that said Charleston, “like Selma and Memphis, has become a national test of purpose with tremendously important implications for decent-minded Americans everywhere.” The hospital workers and hundreds of others walked through the streets for more than an hour, the marchers singing “We Shall Not Be Moved” as they paraded past Ashley Hall, a private school for girls — white girls. The contrast was deftly noted by The Times.

The march brought Charleston to the attention of the White House and President Richard Nixon ordered South Carolina to end this embarrassment quickly. The state did not particularly welcome instruction from Washington, but on this occasion South Carolina officials found themselves in rare accord with the federal government. As King marched for the cameras, lawmakers 100 miles away in Columbia were plotting their response to the hospital strike.

They were determined to make sure Coretta Scott King was wasting her time.

The day before King’s march, South Carolina Gov. Robert McNair called legislative leaders into his conference room on the first floor of the Statehouse. He said the state would not negotiate with striking hospital workers, that South Carolina had never recognized unions — and that was not about to change. When lawmakers left the room nearly an hour and a half later, they had their orders. One legislator told reporters the governor was standing firm. Another said, more ominously, that “There’s one thing that’s never been tried before — force.”

The South Carolina Statehouse was not a particularly hospitable environment for equal rights. In 1969, the 170-member General Assembly was comprised of 169 white men and one white woman. Atop the Statehouse dome, the Confederate Naval Jack flew below the South Carolina and U.S. flags. The flag had been hoisted nearly a decade earlier, allegedly to honor the centennial of the Civil War. Some people considered the banner a subtle protest of the civil rights movement, something many Southern states had done in the wake of the monumental Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. Georgia had even redesigned its state flag to incorporate the Confederate battle flag image. South Carolina’s own Confederate flag remained in place four years after the war’s centennial ended. In the South, old times were not forgotten.

About the time King began her march, legislators convened to debate a resolution hastily drafted after their meeting with McNair. The resolution said: “That there being no Constitutional or statutory authority permitting the state, its subdivisions, agencies or institutions to bargain collectively with their employees, the public policy in this regard as announced by his excellency, the governor of South Carolina, be and the same is hereby affirmed.” It was little more than a position paper, a signal that the Legislature would not intervene on behalf of hospital workers.

Some Charleston lawmakers complained that they hadn’t seen the resolution until it was presented for a vote. Sen. Robert Scarborough said Charleston County lawmakers would support the measure, but claimed that did not indicate a lack of concern for their home county. In truth, they simply would not cross legislative leadership, or McNair. In 1969, such rebellion was not condoned at the South Carolina Statehouse. The Democrats who controlled the state were a tightly regimented organization and the few Republicans who held seats did not protest — not on this particular issue. Condemning a striking union was as close as South Carolina came to bipartisanship.

***

Coretta Scott King’s march broke up shortly after passing the main campus of the Medical College’s west wing on Ashley Avenue. As she circled back to the parking lot where the march began, about 150 demonstrators broke off and formed a picket line in front of the hospital. It was a clear violation of the court order’s limits, a show of defiance. When Chief Conroy reminded them of the rules and asked them to move along, they refused.

“Do you want to go to jail?” the police chief asked.

“Yes, yes, yes,” the people chanted.

But Conroy did nothing, and no one would question his judgment. A few days earlier, the local Rotary Club had given the chief a standing ovation for keeping the city safe during the strike. Conroy took this job seriously and, if he had any sympathy for the demonstrators, he did not let it show. But he told them they could stay for a while; his men would be back later to arrest them. At the moment, Conroy had far more pressing concerns. He desperately wanted to make sure Coretta Scott King got out of Charleston unharmed — both for her sake, and the city’s. The protesters could wait.

The next day, Gov. McNair declared a state of emergency for Charleston and imposed a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. He feared the city was in for a long siege. Some predicted the next step would be martial law, especially after The News and Courier reported that the curfew had failed to stop the violence: “Fires, gunfire, false alarms and gang attacks flared sporadically after the 9 p.m. curfew began in Charleston.”

Protesters threw rocks at police officers and soldiers patrolling the streets. A storage shed on Queen Street was set afire when someone tossed a Molotov cocktail into it. Two National Guardsmen claimed they had seen “two Negro youths” running from the building just before the fire was detected. Later that night, two unoccupied Highway Patrol cruisers parked on President Street were riddled with bullets. The strike was becoming less peaceful every day.

Save for a few trouble-makers, the city was a ghost town on the first night of the curfew. The News and Courier noted that when the bells of St. Michael’s chimed 9 o’clock, Charleston was already asleep. The restaurants and movie houses were quiet, and the go-go dancers — as the paper euphemistically called them — were temporarily out of work. The city was living under armed occupation. Checkpoints were set up on the bridges leading to the peninsula from West Ashley and Mount Pleasant. Guardsmen searched cars and checked identifications, allowing only doctors or other approved night-shift workers entrance to the city.

Tensions grew more strained when a local lawmaker, state Sen. Rembert C. Dennis, suggested that the Legislature pass a resolution praising the governor and the Medical College for their stand against these protests. Herbert Fielding, a local funeral home director and chairman of a black civil rights organization called the Political Action Committee, pointed out the senator was a trustee at the Medical College — perhaps not the most unbiased judge of the situation.

Fielding said politicians like Dennis had casually dismissed the concerns of hundreds of citizens, turned Charleston into an “armed camp” and refused to even discuss a solution. He called on local leaders to “start immediate discussions between state officials and the workers now on strike.” Fielding demanded the tanks and troops leave Charleston.

Finally, the city offered a gesture of good faith. Charleston Mayor Palmer Gaillard appointed a committee of citizens to sit down with hospital officials and striking workers in hopes of defusing the hostility. Gaillard said he wanted to find some common-sense middle ground. Both sides agreed to try, and for weeks the newspaper was filled with promising headlines predicting a break in the strike. But that didn’t happen, and soon the threats from the hospitals resumed. Medical College President Dr. William McCord said that “if the union keeps up the pressure … the hospital will have to close.”

***

For weeks, it seemed Charleston was in a time loop. There would be a march, people were arrested, and when they were released the cycle began anew. Ralph David Abernathy was released from the Charleston County Jail on Friday, May 2 — the same day his “letter” was published in The News and Courier. In it, he assured the city that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference only wanted equal rights for all people, that they were not Communists. “We want and will have no part of a godless, atheist, totalitarian form of Communism. But neither will we have a dictatorial, repressive so-called Democracy.”

The following Monday, Abernathy was back in Charleston to lead yet another march. He returned several times until he was finally jailed again on June 20 for organizing a nighttime protest. This time Abernathy vowed to not post bail until the strike was settled. Protesters responded by throwing bricks at police officers, and the governor quickly reinstated the curfew that had been lifted three weeks earlier. This time, the mayor requested it, because conditions in Charleston seemed to get worse each day.

As the summer began, 17 U.S. senators asked the White House to send in mediators, and they arrived just in time to witness Abernathy’s second arrest and the violence it precipitated. The AFL-CIO came to the union’s aid and threatened to shut down the Port of Charleston unless the strike was settled. Finally, the pressure was too great to ignore any longer. Local civil rights activists, including Bill Saunders of Johns Island, were able to broker a deal with officials from the two hospitals.

The strike ended on June 27, 100 days after it began. McCord said the employees who had been fired would be rehired, and the rest could come back to work. All of them would be paid at least $1.60 an hour — the federal minimum wage — and a grievance process would be established to handle any future trouble. The hospital even set up a credit union for the workers, something they didn’t have before the strike. One of the final sticking points was the reinstatement of Mary Moultrie, the woman who started it all. Moultrie learned she had her job back while watching TV in a hotel room in New York City, where she had been sent on a speaking tour to raise money for her striking colleagues.

The County Hospital settled with its workers a month later, rehiring everyone but Rosetta Simmons. Hospital officials said they had hired another LPN in her absence and had no job for her. Five months passed before the hospital offered her another position. That was effectively the end of the episode, but medical workers knew all too well that some wounds took a long time to heal.

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Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

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