by Paul Bowers
Most carriage tours won't tell you much about the history of the Civil Rights Movement in Charleston, but the Holy City was home to at least one major event from the era: the 1969 Hospital Workers' Strike. On Tuesday afternoon, the labor protest will get its own historic marker in an unveiling ceremony near the Medical University of South Carolina.
In 1968, local activist and nurse's aide Mary Moultrie led a group of hospital employees on a crusade for equal treatment of black workers at Medical College Hospital (now MUSC). When she and 11 others were fired after contacting the New York-based healthcare union Local 1199, Moultrie and other area activists launched a strike on April 25, 1969, that lasted 113 days and brought thousands of protesters to the peninsula, including the recently widowed Coretta Scott King.
It proved to be one of the final battlegrounds of the Civil Rights era, but the results were mixed. The 12 fired employees were re-hired, and the hospital adopted new policies for addressing workers' grievances, but to this day workers at the hospital are not unionized.
The Preservation Society of Charleston is placing a new historic marker on Ashley Avenue to commemorate the strike. The society's 2011 Seven to Save list of preservation priorities included the category "Civil Rights Era Sites." According to a press release from the Preservation Society, the site was chosen out of 10 potential sites for a new historic marker.
Aurora Harris, community outreach manager for the Preservation Society of Charleston, says this is the first time a marker has been placed to commemorate the strike, although much research and oral history exists on the topic. "We find that many people are unaware of Charleston's role in the movement, which is my we started this project in 2011," Harris says.
Not everyone is pleased with the new marker. Bill Saunders, an activist who helped organize the workers in 1968 and has seen the text for the marker, says he wishes it mentioned more of the locals who got the movement started rather than focusing on the out-of-town leaders who got involved later. He specifically thinks more credit should be given to individuals such as attorney Gedney Howe and former MUSC Vice President William Huff, as well as groups like Concerned Clergy and the Trident Community Relations Committee. "My problem is people who were not involved in history can sanitize history to make it fit into what they would like for it to have been, never the way that it was," Saunders says. "Losers don't get a chance to write history."
Harris says that the state's historic marker criteria prohibit markers from recognizing living people. "It's very difficult to capture such a pivotal moment in the freedom struggle on such a small space, and to do so we got as much input from historians and living organizers as we could," Harris says.
The marker unveiling will take place on Tuesday at 3 p.m. at 173 Ashley Avenue, near the Waring Library. Mary Moultrie will speak as a special guest. The event is free and open to the public.