The Charleston Hospital Strike (1969)

Coretta Scott King with strikers
Coretta Scott King with strikers
Courtesy Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC.

The Charleston Hospital Strike occurred between March 19, 1969, and June 27, 1969, in Charleston, South Carolina. The leading causes of the strike were pay inequality based on race, racial discrimination, and racial segregation of African American hospital workers.

On March 17, 1969, a group of African American employees at Medical College Hospital (Now Medical University of South Carolina) met with hospital president William McCord in his office to discuss their concerns and grievances with him. After the meeting, Charleston Police Chief John Conroy threatened to arrest the employees when they returned to work.  Twelve employees were fired for abandoning their patients at the end of their shifts.

On March 19, 1969, hundreds of Black hospital workers, predominantly women, went on strike to demand the reinstatement of their coworkers and official recognition of their union. A week later, more than sixty African American employees at the Charleston County Hospital walked off their jobs and joined the strike. Medical College officials secured an injunction prohibiting picketing within hours of the walkout. In response, nurse Naomi White and a handful of close associates formed a support group called Hell’s Angels, which visited workers at their homes to impress upon them the importance of maintaining strike discipline.

South Carolina Governor Robert McNair prohibited the Medical College and Charleston County from compromising with the strikers and urged them to avoid anything that would appear to be collective bargaining. On April 25, 1969, McNair declared a state of emergency and ordered more than 1,000 state troopers and National Guardsmen to Charleston. He also imposed a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew. In response, strike organizers held nighttime demonstrations, and law enforcement officials responded by arresting hundreds of strikers, their family members, and large numbers of students.

As the strike continued, some of them were attacked. One union organizer’s hotel room was firebombed, and there were other acts of vandalism and mysterious fires. Strike leaders gained support from well-known civil rights activists, including Coretta Scott King, whose husband had been assassinated on April 4, 1968, as he supported striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, and Andrew Young, allies of Martin Luther King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), joined Coretta Scott King in supporting the strike.

On April 29, 1969, Coretta Scott King addressed a mass rally at Emanuel AME Church; King stated, “I feel that Black woman in our nation, the Black working woman, is perhaps the most discriminated against of all of the working women,” After the speech, King led a 2,000-person march. On Mother’s Day, 1969, over 10,000 people, including five United States Congressmen, marched from the Charleston County Hall auditorium to the Medical College. That march and the negative publicity generated nationally by the strike led local business leaders to call for negotiations.

On June 27, 1969, the strike was settled. The Medical College Hospital promised to rehire strikers the following week, including the twelve employees who had been fired. The Hospital also agreed to abide by a newly established six-step grievance process and provide modest pay increases. In 1970, a documentary about the strike called I Am Somebody, directed by Madeline Anderson, was released. On October 1, 2013, the Preservation Society of Charleston unveiled a historic marker commemorating the strike on the Medical University of South Carolina campus.