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Charleston Hospital Workers Strike for Fair Wages

Dr. Larry Watson Dr. Larry Watson
Black doctors, nurses and other hospital workers protest low wages at Charleston hospitals.

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.

Civil Rights activist Coretta Scott King joined with the Charleston hospital workers protests in 1969.

Perhaps the most defining moment, however, was the Mother’s Day March about one week later on Sunday, May 11, 1969. More than 5,000 supporters heard Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson and five U.S. Congressmen voice support for the workers. As many as 15,000 people then joined a peaceful march to the Medical College Hospital.

Finally, under threats of losing federal funding because of noncompliance to federal labor and civil rights regulations, Medical College Hospital agreed on a settlement. Among other things, all striking workers would be rehired, the minimum wage would increase to $1.60 per hour and a formal grievance process would be established. The Charleston County Hospital strike lasted for an additional 13 days before a similar agreement was reached.

The strike was officially over, but long-term effects lingered for years. The strike cost local merchants millions of dollars in lost revenue, primarily because of the economic boycott by strike sympathizers and the absence of tourists. Heightened levels of law enforcement, especially the National Guard, cost the state several million dollars. Services at both hospitals were severely affected. It would be months before some services were restored. The strike pitted striking workers against non-striking workers and replacement workers. Families and friends were split. The Charleston religious community was divided by the strike.

In the end, the force of change that these hospital workers set in motion helped to increase the tide toward racial equality in the workplace.

Dr. Larry Watson
Dr. Larry Watson
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