By Barney Blakeney
In 1969, 12 employees upset over inequities in working conditions, pay and racial discrimination walked off their jobs in protest at what then was the Medical College of South Carolina. Thus began the 110-day 1969 Charleston Hospital Workers Strike. March 20 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the strike. The four-month strike crippled operations at the Medical College Hospital of South Carolina and Charleston County Hospital, and disrupted the historic city during the height of its tourist season.
The 110-day strike helped to transform the city that had declined economically after the Civil War, but was experiencing a post-World War II business boost by the late 1960s. Some 1,500 Blacks, mostly women, worked at the Medical College of South Carolina which was among the community’s largest employers. But most only were paid minimum wage or about $1.30 per hour.
Four hundred workers—all African American and mostly women—struck for higher wages, an end to workplace discrimination, and recognition of Local 1199B of the New York-based Drug and Hospital Employees Union. Organizers from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) arrived from Atlanta to mobilize church and community support and to orchestrate nonviolent civil disobedience that resulted in nearly 1,000 arrests.
The Charleston strike generated great enthusiasm within the civil rights movement and on the left. Many believed that Charleston signaled the emergence of a potent alliance between the civil rights and labor movements. The strike brought together labor and civil rights organizations and mobilized thousands of Black residents. The strike influenced political participation across the state.
Viewed as part of the longer sweep of local history, the Charleston strike was a spark for continued labor organization among the city’s sanitation workers as well as steelworkers in Georgetown. The strike also inspired a mass voter registration drive that led to a dramatic expansion of black voting power and the election of the first African Americans to the state legislature since Reconstruction. In this regard, the hospital strike marked the arrival of the Charleston area’s black working class as a political force with which to be reckoned.
The strike, however, ended ambiguously at the end of June. The workers received modest raises that brought the lowest paid workers up to the federal minimum wage. And several strike leaders who had been fired for their activism were reinstated. However, the workers’ were denied union recognition. Led by strike leader Mary Moultrie, Local 1199B survived a short time before national union staff shifted their attention and resources to other cities that offered better prospects for success.
Before her 2015 death Moultrie lamented, ““Things are the same or worse.” Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (CAFE) State Board Chairman Leonard Riley said Black workers at MUSC still face disparities in pay and representation in higher level positions. “The victory of the 1969 hospital strike hasn’t been as effective as it should have been because there’s still some unfinished business. Through a methodology of tokenism and placing some Blacks in strategic positions, despite those who say things are nice, for most Black workers the very same issues that were there in 1969 still exist,” Riley said.
Before she passed in April 2015, Mary Moultrie insisted that the public remember the strikers and supporters whose sacrifices, genius, and determination have mostly been lost to time. She praised the wisdom and creativity of the activists such as Isaiah Bennett, Bill Saunders, and Otis Robinson who she turned to for support many months before the union, SCLC, and the mass media arrived in Charleston.
She never forgot the generosity of students and of youth like members of the Jackson Street Panthers who watched over her as she slept in the union hall after having been driven from her home by terrorist threats. And she was forever humbled and awed by the participation of the housekeeping and dietary workers, who were among the lowest paid hospital employees.
Moultrie was equally insistent that the strike be commemorated with action. Friends and associates of Mary Moultrie organized as the Committee to Remember the 1969 Strike are planning a series of public events to honor strike veterans, keep memories of the strike alive, and to organize in the spirit of ’69 toward a Charleston that is more just and democratic.
The events begin with a 7 p.m. March 20 screening of “I Am Somebody”, the powerful 1970 documentary film about the Charleston strike by Madeline Anderson, at the International Longshoremen’s Hall located at 1142 Morrison Drive which will be followed by remarks from surviving strikers. March 23, the co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival Rev. Dr. William Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis will preside over a program honoring the strikers at Charity Missionary Baptist Church located at 1544 E Montague Ave, North Charleston) 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Afternoon organizing workshops will focus on continuing the work of the Poor People’s Campaign.
For more information about the Committee to Remember or to plan your own event to honor the hospital strikers, contact Chris Nelson at (843) 810-3889.