Charleston Hospital Strike of 1969 Historical Marker
Backstory and Context
In Charleston, South Carolina in 1969, over 400 African American hospital workers, mostly female, began a strike against the administration of the Medical College Hospital and Charleston County Hospital. The strikes against MCH lasted exactly 100 days and the strike at CCH went on for 121 days. Charleston's hospital strike was particularly monumental because it was largely organized by women, and involved a number of older African American people who were challenging what they felt was a manifestation of systemic racism. The strike served as the last large-scale protest of African Americans in the 1960s, and it played a significant role in challenging discriminatory practices that limited the opportunities for hospital workers in Charleston.
There were a number of factors that contributed to the hospital strike of 1969. The all-white administrations of the Medical College Hospital and Charleston County Hospital refused to allow their workers to unionize. They also paid black nurses' aides less than white nurses' aides for the same work. At that time, black employees (including licensed practical nurses, orderlies, and kitchen and laundry staff) were paid $1.30/hour, which was $0.30 below the minimum wage at that time. The wage differential was also symbolic of the lack of opportunities and treatment many African American employees endured. At the time, black medical students were often denied jobs at the hospitals due to their race.
These discriminatory practices had been going on for years, but the 1965 law that forbade workplace discrimination led the hospital staff to organize their first protest in February of 1967. The event that led to resistance was the actions of a white head nurse who blocked access to patient medical records to black staff members. In response, the five staff members protested and were subsequently fired the next day. The five workers then asked Mary Moultrie, a black nurse's aide, to help them. Moultrie talked with Bill Saunders, a factory worker, activist, and community representative of the local office of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). They also sought the advice of Isaiah Bennett, a veteran union organizer.
HEW began investigating the hospitals' practices as groups of workers began meeting in secret at local churches in the area, including Emanuel AME Church, Morris Street Baptist Church, and Morris Brown AME Church. The workers were reinstated, but these meetings continued and soon CCH workers, led by Rosetta Simmons, began partaking in the meetings. Due to their discussions at these meetings, workers from MCH and CCH realized that they had all been enduring the same discriminatory practices. Since the administrations at these hospitals had been unresponsive to their needs, these workers decided they needed a national union to represent them. Soon after, a Local 1199B union of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Workers was chartered in Charleston, and Moultrie was elected president.
In February, 1969, 1199B requested formal recognition from MCH but hospital administration rebuffed their request. In response to this denial, Moultrie and her fellow healthcare professionals walked out of the meeting and briefly took over hospital president William McCord's office in protest. Twelve of these workers were fired in retaliation for their protest. That night, Local 1199B decided to go on strike at MCH to demand union recognition as well as an increase in MCH's wages for African Americans to at least meet the federal minimum wage standard. The protesters also called for the reinstatement of workers who had been fired for protesting.
The strike began on March 20th. At the strike, college president William McCord declared that he would not "turn a 25 million dollar complex over to a bunch of people who don't have a grammar school education." McCord and S.C.'s Governor Robert McNair said that the state's right-to-work law precluded union recognition of MCH workers. On March 29th, CCH workers joined the strike and some of the participants were arrested. Dr. Ralph David Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) arrived in Charleston on March 31st and spoke to 1,500 strikers and their supporters. SCLC had been previously headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been assassinated one year earlier. The presence of Abernathy helped to rally Charleston's African American community and garner support for the workers.
On April 25th, Abernathy and 101 demonstrators were arrested and Governor McNair ordered 500 National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets to patrol Charleston's streets. On April 28th, Coretta Scott King spoke at the protest, telling the more than 3,000 workers and supports that had gathered that her husband would have been there if alive. The next day, Coretta King led a mass march in the hospital area. Governor McNair ordered a curfew in Charleston and declared a state of emergency in the city as tensions grew. Abernathy was released from jail on band, which was likely an attempt to appease the protesters, but the protest could not be so easily quelled. As the strike continued, Charleston's economy and reputation suffered. Supporters boycotted city businesses and tourists avoided the city due to the imposed curfew and tension. As economic pressures grew, so did the pressure to settle the strike. It is estimated that the strike ultimately cost Charleston more than $15 million.
On Mother's Day, May 11th, 1969, over five thousand marchers were in attendance to hear Abernathy, Moultrie, Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, and five congressmen condemn the actions of white state officials in response to the strike. On June 2nd the Governor ended the curfew, but Abernathy was again arrested on June 20th. Abernathy's arrest led to a near-riot, increasing pressure placed upon Charleston's Governor and other white officials. In response to this tension, negotiations began between Bill Saunders who represented the workers and MCH vice president William Huff. In the end, the pair agreed that the twelve workers would be rehired and pay would be raised to federal minimum wage. However, the agreement did not include recognition for the new union established by the African American workers. The workers accepted the compromise, but college president William McCord was outraged. When a HEW investigation charged MCH with thirty-seven violations of civil rights statutes and threatened to cut off $12 million in federal funds, however, McCord decided to accept the terms of the agreement.
The hospital strike of 1969 was a significant event in a new phase of the civil rights movement that focused on the rights of workers. It was also the last large-scale civil rights protest led by African Americans in the 1960s. In the wake of the hospital strike, Charleston elected its first African American state legislator since Reconstruction. Local 1199B folded after a year due to its lack of recognition from the hospital administration. However, the protest drew attention to other efforts to promote workplace equity and economic justice. The agreement improved conditions for Charleston's healthcare workers, and Charleston's African American population more broadly. Today, the historical marker commemorating the hospital strike is stationed outside of the Medical University of South Carolina's College of Dental Medicine.
Hopkins, George W. "Charleston Hospital Workers' Strike." South Carolina Encyclopedia, http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/charleston-hospital-workers-strike/. Accessed 16 April 2020.
Parker, Adam. "Legacy of 1969 Charleston Hospital Workers Strike 'Often Overlooked,' Some Say." The Post and Courier, https://www.postandcourier.com/news/local_state_news/legacy-of-1969-charleston-hospital-workers-strike-often-overlooked-some-say/article_246939ce-8608-11e9-a5cf-5786273935cf.html. Accessed 16 April 2020.