CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) – Mary Moultrie, one of the leaders of the 1969 Charleston Hospital strike, unveiled a historical marker Tuesday commemorating the seminal event in South Carolina civil rights history, one that brought national leaders to the city and saw thousands marching through the streets in protest.
Moultrie, now 71, led about 400 workers off their jobs at what was then the Medical College of South Carolina Hospital and the nearby Charleston Memorial Hospital.
The workers, most of them black and most of them women, sought better pay and working conditions. In short, she said, “the right to be treated like human beings.”
The strike lasted for 113 days before an agreement was reached with hospital management, although one of the workers' goals, the right to form a union, was never realized.
At one point during the 113 days, Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., led a march with an estimated 5,000 people. During another march, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was arrested.
“We marched, we picketed and many of us did whatever we needed to do to make the marches a success. We had nightly rallies and we boycotted businesses,” Moultrie recalled during a gathering at the Medical University of South Carolina where the marker was unveiled.
At one point during the strike, then-Gov. Robert McNair established a curfew and brought out the National Guard.
When it was over, “we did not get a bona fide contract,” Moultrie said. “We got a memorandum. The state of South Carolina maintains they cannot bargain collectively with unions. This policy is a hindrance to state and city workers who deserve to be treated fairly,” she said.
“The only way to do this historical marker justice is to recognize the workers in the State of South Carolina and here at the Medical University of South Carolina Hospital need union representation,” she added.
The marker was the last of five put up this year by the Preservation Society of Charleston to recognize significant civil rights era events in the city where the Civil War began.
Among the others are those at a downtown store where protesters staged the city's first lunch counter sit-in and at one of the first four schools in the city to be desegregated.
The sites were selected by a public vote.
“We often take for granted how difficult change is in a community,” said Evan Thompson, the foundation's executive director. “Change is difficult. It is hard but when it's successful, we need to recognize it and be inspired that we can change other issues in the community.”