Mary Moultrie never wanted to be a hero.
That’s the way a lot of these stories go.
Moultrie was a quiet, unassuming woman. She didn’t think she was better than anyone else or deserved more than others.
She only wanted what was fair, what was right.
“She was an unlikely civil rights pioneer,” Mayor Joe Riley says. “She was quiet, but she stood up for what she believed in.”
The difference between her and so many others is that she had the guts to do something about it.
In 1968, Moultrie was a nurse’s aide at the Medical College — what is now MUSC — where she cleaned up after patients, changed bed linens, and generally did all the jobs no one else wanted to do.
It was a living, barely. At some point, she discovered that her pay — $1.30 an hour — was 30 cents less than the federal minimum wage. What the hospital was doing to her and hundreds of her co-workers was literally a crime.
Black workers complained they were subjected to racial slurs, couldn’t use the same break room as white, were sometimes denied access to their own patients’ record. The pay was the last straw. When they complained, the hospital administration offered them an additional paid holiday: Robert E. Lee’s birthday.
That was Charleston in the 1960s.
We have Mary Moultrie to thank for changing it.
In March 1969, the hospital president called Moultrie and 11 of her co-workers to his office to discuss their grievances.
He didn’t show, and Moultrie was fired for walking off her job — even though she had left her post at the request of the president. The strike began the next day.
The deck was stacked from the beginning. A judge said there could only be 10 people on the picket line at any time, and they had to stand in an area that took up no more than 20 yards of sidewalk. On April 11, Moultrie was sent to jail for standing outside that imaginary box.
The charge was so ludicrous that she was eventually released without being charged, but not until she had spent 11 days behind bars.
By that time, tanks were rolling through the streets of Charleston, desperate to save the city from dangerous healthcare workers. It was an ugly time for the state. The Legislature said it was about standing up against unions, but it looked very much like something else entirely.
Moultrie became the symbol of the dispute, a national figure in what is widely considered the last major event of the civil rights movement.
She was out on a speaking tour to raise money for fired hospital workers when she heard the strike had ended, and she had her job back. A few years later, Moultrie briefly moved to New York. On a lark one day, she stopped by the offices of the union that had helped Charleston hospital workers get their pay raised up to the minimum wage.
Inside the union headquarters, she found a poster of herself on the wall — a sight that horrified her so much she left without saying hello.
Moultrie did not want to be an icon.
But she was.
On Monday, Mary Moultrie passed away and everyone who knew her feels that loss in our souls.
She was a kind woman, interested in assisting the poor, the homeless — anyone who needed help. Mary Moultrie had a big heart.
The only way to way to get a rise out of her was to ask about unions. If she didn’t agree with your take, she’d tell you what they did for her and her co-workers back in the day.
“She was a great leader in her time,” state Rep. Wendell Gilliard said. “She was a trailblazer, and she just did so much good.”
Gilliard says it is Moultrie he thinks of when people attack unions these days. Mary Moultrie wasn’t about shutting down business, or stopping free enterprise. She just wanted what was fair.
History has proven her right.
Mayor Riley eventually hired Moultrie to run the Saint Julian Devine Community Center on the East Side, which she did until she retired a decade ago. It was a perfect spot from which to help people.
Mary Moultrie lived long enough to see MUSC apologize for the way it handled the strike, and she was on hand when a historical marker to those days was dedicated outside the hospital a few years back.
In 1969, the Charleston hospital strike was considered such a calamity that the White House got involved. Today, it is remembered as an event that helped bring a little fairness — and civil rights — to this community. It was one long struggle for people who wanted nothing more than a little fairness, to make things right.
They ultimately did all that and more, and they changed Charleston forever.
That is an amazing, and well-deserved, legacy for Mary Moultrie.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org