History & Major Facts about the Charleston Hospital Strike in 1969

The Charleston Hospital Strike of 1969 stands as a pivotal chapter in the annals of U.S. labor and civil rights history, epitomizing the convergence of race, labor, and healthcare issues during a tumultuous period of American social transformation.

The strike, which was primarily led by African American women, not only highlighted the systemic inequalities and poor working conditions prevalent in the healthcare sector but also demonstrated the power of collective action and solidarity across racial and organizational lines.

What does the Charleston Hospital Strike reveal about the interconnectedness of labor rights and civil rights movements? And how did collective action and solidarity among strikers and supporters challenge systemic injustices during the Charleston Hospital Strike?

The Charleston Hospital Strike remains a significant chapter in American history, reflecting the complex interplay of race, labor, and social justice in the late 20th century.

In the article below, World History Edu explores the major causes and effects of the strike on the nation:

Background

The roots of the Charleston Hospital Strike can be traced back to the broader context of the 1960s, a decade marked by intense civil rights activism, anti-Vietnam War protests, and a growing consciousness around workers’ rights. Charleston, South Carolina, like much of the American South, was a hotspot of racial tension and inequality. The city’s Medical College Hospital (now Medical University of South Carolina) and the Charleston County Hospital served as microcosms of these wider societal issues, with predominantly African American staff working in menial, low-paid positions under often deplorable conditions.

The Spark

The immediate catalyst for the strike was the firing of twelve workers from the Medical College Hospital in early 1969, ostensibly for attempting to form a union. This move was seen as a direct attack on the workers’ rights to organize, a right that was especially critical for African American workers in the South, who faced systemic discrimination and limited economic opportunities. The dismissals of those workers galvanized the hospital’s workforce, leading to a call for action that quickly gained momentum.

The Strike

The strike officially began on April 23, 1969, with workers demanding fair wages, recognition of their right to unionize, and improved working conditions.

The strikers, initially composed of hospital workers, were soon joined by members of the local community, civil rights activists, and labor organizers from across the country.

Notably, Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., lent her support, drawing national attention to the strike and framing it within the larger context of the civil rights movement.

Challenges and Resistance

The strikers faced significant challenges from the outset. The state government, hospital administration, and local law enforcement were vehemently opposed to the strike, viewing it as a threat to the status quo.

Governor Robert McNair deployed the National Guard to maintain order, leading to tense standoffs and, at times, violent confrontations. The strikers and their supporters were subjected to arrests, intimidation, and physical violence, yet they remained resolute in their demands.

The deployment of over 1,000 state troopers and National Guardsmen to Charleston by Governor Robert Evander McNair significantly increased the law enforcement presence, leading to heightened tensions and a more militarized atmosphere in the community. Image: Robert McNair.

Strategy and Solidarity

A key factor in the longevity and impact of the strike was the strategic alliance between the striking workers, local civil rights groups, and national labor organizations, particularly the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). This coalition was instrumental in organizing protests, mobilizing support, and maintaining the strike’s visibility on the national stage.

Also, the involvement of religious and community leaders provided moral and logistical support, helping to sustain the strikers and their families during the protracted standoff.

Resolution

After more than 100 days, the strike concluded in late June 1969 with a partial victory for the workers. While the hospital refused to formally recognize the union, it agreed to rehire the dismissed workers, raise wages, and implement some of the demanded changes in working conditions.

The strike’s resolution was seen as a compromise, but it also represented a significant step forward in the fight for workers’ rights and racial equality in the South.

The Charleston Hospital Strike had a lasting impact on the labor movement and the struggle for civil rights in the United States. It underscored the interconnectedness of economic and racial justice issues and demonstrated the effectiveness of grassroots organizing and cross-racial solidarity.

The strike also contributed to a growing recognition of the importance of healthcare workers and the need for equitable labor practices in the healthcare industry.

Did you know…?

  • A federal probe accused the Medical College Hospital of 37 civil rights violations, risking a $12 million federal fund loss. Under pressure, President McCord settled on June 27, 1969, agreeing to rehire the strikers, including the initially fired twelve, and implement a grievance process and pay raises.
  • Despite no formal union recognition, the strike was deemed a success, leading to better pay and fairer hiring practices for African Americans at the College.
  • On August 15, 1969, 200 black Charleston sanitation workers went on strike for better wages and conditions. After two months, a compromise ended the strike, addressing some of their demands.

Legacy

The Charleston Hospital Strike’s legacy was immortalized in the 1970 documentary “I Am Somebody” by Pennsylvania-born filmmaker and screenwriter Madeline Anderson and further commemorated in 2013 by the Preservation Society of Charleston with a historic marker. This strike not only highlighted the intersectionality of labor and civil rights issues but also demonstrated the power of collective action and solidarity in challenging systemic injustices.

Frequently Asked Questions

The Charleston Hospital Strike serves as a powerful example of how collective action, even in the face of formidable opposition, can bring about change and advance the cause of human rights.

Here are some frequently asked questions about the strike:

How long did the strike last for?

The Charleston Hospital Strike of 1969, occurring between March 19 and June 27 in Charleston, South Carolina, was a landmark event in the civil rights and labor movements, marked by its strong racial undertones and significant involvement of African American hospital workers.

What triggered the Charleston Hospital Strike?

The strike was precipitated by egregious pay disparities, racial discrimination, and the segregation of Black employees at the Medical College Hospital (now the Medical University of South Carolina).

The conflict ignited on March 17, 1969, when African American employees met with the hospital’s president, William McCord, to voice their grievances.

The meeting led to threats of arrest from Charleston Police Chief John Conroy and the subsequent firing of twelve employees for allegedly abandoning their patients. This act of retaliation spurred hundreds of Black hospital workers, primarily women, to initiate a strike on March 19, demanding the reinstatement of their colleagues and formal recognition of their union.

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What role did the support group known as Hell’s Angels play during the Charleston Hospital Strike?

The movement quickly gained momentum as over sixty employees from Charleston County Hospital joined the strike. The hospital administration sought legal injunctions against picketing, leading to innovative responses from the strikers, such as the formation of a support group known as Hell’s Angels, which played a crucial role in sustaining strike discipline.

How did Governor Robert McNair’s intervention impact the progression of the Charleston Hospital Strike?

The situation escalated when Governor Robert McNair intervened, explicitly prohibiting any form of compromise or collective bargaining with the strikers. His declaration of a state of emergency and the deployment of state troopers and National Guardsmen intensified the standoff, leading to curfews, mass arrests, and violent confrontations.

For example, the imposition of a curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. restricted the movement of residents and strikers, affecting daily life and potentially limiting the strikers’ ability to organize and protest.

What were the consequences of Governor McNair’s declaration of a state of emergency on the strikers and the community?

The escalated law enforcement response resulted in the arrests of hundreds of strikers, their family members, and students, which not only disrupted the strike efforts but also placed a strain on the local community and legal system.

What was the significance of Coretta Scott King’s speech at Emanuel AME Church and her leadership in the march?

Amidst growing tension and violence, the strike drew the attention and support of notable civil rights leaders, including Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, and Andrew Young of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Coretta Scott King’s involvement, highlighted by her speech at Emanuel AME Church and leadership of a massive march, underscored the national significance of the strike and its connection to broader civil rights struggles.

Image: Coretta Scott King (August 1927 to December 2006), was the wife of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.

Timeline: Coretta Scott King

How did public pressure and national publicity contribute to the resolution of the Charleston Hospital Strike?

The persistence of the strikers and the mounting public pressure eventually led to negotiations, facilitated by the adverse national publicity and the advocacy of local business leaders. The strike concluded on June 27, with the hospital agreeing to rehire the strikers, including the initially fired twelve employees, and to implement a new grievance process and modest wage increases.

How has the legacy of the Charleston Hospital Strike been preserved and commemorated in subsequent years?

The legacy of the Charleston Hospital Strike has been preserved and commemorated through various means, reflecting its significance in the history of labor and civil rights movements. One of the key methods of preservation was through the medium of film; the 1970 documentary “I Am Somebody,” directed by American filmmaker Madeline Anderson, played a pivotal role in immortalizing the strike. This documentary provided a powerful narrative of the strikers’ experiences, challenges, and the broader social context, ensuring that future generations could witness and learn from these events.

In addition to film, the strike’s legacy was formally recognized in 2013 when the Preservation Society of Charleston unveiled a historic marker on the Medical University of South Carolina campus.

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