Next time you’re in Charleston and would like to discover a bit of hidden history, venture north on Ashley Avenue to the edge of the historic district and find the sprawling campus of the Medical University of South Carolina. Considered one of the nation’s premier institutions for the research, study and practice of medicine, and situated firmly around a national historic landmark district, the school carries its own history in the form of a Civil Rights movement.
At the pedestrian entrance on Ashley Avenue, in front of the dental school, sits an official state historical marker that interprets the Charleston Hospital Workers’ Strike, a series of peaceful marches, meetings, negotiations and protests that took place in the spring and summer of 1969 to establish fair wages and working conditions for African American employees. The protesters were mostly women employees of Medical College Hospital (today’s MUSC) and Charleston County Hospital.
What made the movement so distinct was that protesters were older professionals and mostly female, a contrast to the college youth and young adults who normally participated in peaceful marches and protests. Opponents struggled to define these workers as scary and out-of-touch.
This movement also took place about one year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose fight for fair wages was just beginning.
Workers’ demands for better conditions drew regional and national attention, including support from unions, national Civil Rights groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and elected officials. It also drew support from Coretta Scott King, who addressed a rally of 4,000 at Emanuel AME Church on April 29, 1969, before leading a peaceful march to the university. “After all, $1.30 an hour is not a wage, it’s an insult,” King said in her remarks.