CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – 1969 was an out of this world year — Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, protestors battled against the Vietnam War, more than a half million people flocked to Woodstock, James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to assassinating Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and hundreds of people marched through the streets of Charleston in support of 12 African American hospital workers who were fired from the hospital we now know as MUSC.
50 years ago the Morris Street Baptist Church was a planning, meeting, and feeding place during the Charleston hospital workers strike.
Hundreds of people crowded into the sanctuary and basement of the church in support of 12 African American workers – 11 women and one man who were fired from what was then The Medical College Hospital for the state of South Carolina.
I asked the surviving workers about the sit-in that turned into an opportunity to stand up for the rights of workers across the state:
“We never walked off the job we were fired for no reason”
“This particular day, Mary came and said, “We are having a meeting today at lunchtime do you want to go?” I said yes. So at 12pm, our lunch time, our patients were covered by someone else. You never go to lunch without your patients being covered. So we went to Dr. McCord’s office. He weren’t there. Then Ms. Burney said she wanted to see us one by one. We said no you have to see us together. So then she said “Because you left your patient unattended you are fired!” We said but we did not leave our patients unattended. But they fired us that day.”
They explained they had been trying to meet with Medical College President William McCord for months about low salaries, discrimination, and verbal abuse on the job.
For 113 days – beginning March 20, 1969, more than 400 Charleston hospital workers walked off their jobs and into the streets of Charleston
Support from civil rights leaders Coretta Scott King, Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy, and Andrew Young were on the front lines, but on the home-front Charleston’s Medical College President blamed the workers for the walkout.
After more than three months of daily protests, Dr. McCord announced an agreement. The Medical College would rehire the workers – A new grievance policy would be in effect, and there would be a modest but equitable pay increase for all state workers.
Most of the people participating in the strike were women, and the driving force behind them was also a woman.
The Charleston Hospital Workers Strike would not have happened if not for a woman named Mary Moultrie. She was the driving force; the lead organizer of the 113 day walk out.
A Burke High School graduate who learned about the unions while working in a New York hospital. She challenged the Medical College administration to end discrimination, pay inequities and to recognize local 1199 as a union.
Although she learned about unions while working as a licensed practical nurse in New York, her license was not recognized at MUSC, so she was hired as an aide.
She described it as institutional racism. Black hospital workers being paid less money to do the same work.
As president of local 1199 she demand the hospital recognize the union. She was threatened and ostracized.
“She was labeled a troublemaker and she was alienated. Her friends were warned that you better keep away from her if you want to keep your job.”
Organizing the hospital workers kept the single mother away from her only child. There wasn’t much time for explaining what she was doing to help others.
The hospital strike was her mother’s mission, leaving little time for explanation about what was happening and why.
Though the strike gained national attention, and powerful civil rights leaders such as the late Coretta Scott King, Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Labor organizer Walter Reuther, Arnise said her mother told her the strike resulted in a few changes but it did not do enough.
Mary Moultrie continued working at the Medical University for several years after the strike but she was often still mistreated; forced to work on psychiatric unit and separated from staff.
She was fired from the hospital again… This time she did not fight to get her job back.
Mary Moultrie passed away April 27, 2015. She was 73 years old.
Arnise said her health failed, but her concern for others never wavered.
“She never really embraced all the efforts after the fact. She said there is so much inequity at the hospital and other industries in the south that need to be addressed and there are so many people who aren’t being treated fairly in the work places.”
There were mass demonstrations and arrests in the streets of Charleston. Protestors, some of whom were in high school were handcuffed and taken to jail. South Carolina’s Governor Robert McNair called in hundreds of state troopers and members of the national guard.
A state of emergency was declared in the city.