From 1969 to 2016: How the arc of social justice is bending in Charleston

by Tom Grubisich

In the early weeks of the hospital workers’ strike of 1969 – the defining event in the struggle for social justice in Charleston during the Civil Rights Movement – Paul Hardin Jr., the white bishop of the state Methodist conference, articulated his church’s neutral position:

“The Church is not in the business of trying to solve controversial issues regarding assignment [of workers] and labor. It is in the business of trying to minister to all of the people on all sides of all fences and of both races.”

Hardin’s declaration helped to dissuade local white Protestant denominations from supporting the overwhelmingly black service workers who struck two major hospitals for fair pay and professional job opportunities.

Rev. Ralph Abernathy, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, right, marches with Local 1199B President Mary Moultrie and United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther during local hospital workers' strike in 1969. PHOTO CREDIT: Avery Research Center, College of Charleston.

Rev. Ralph Abernathy, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, right, marches with Local 1199B President Mary Moultrie and United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther during local hospital workers' strike in 1969.

PHOTO CREDIT: Avery Research Center, College of Charleston.

Most of the religious support for the workers came from local black congregations, who provided food and financial help and opened their houses of worship to strike rallies, including those led by the Rev. Ralph D. Albernathy, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which co-organized the strike.

The Concerned Clergy Committee was sympathetic to the strikers and appealed to hospital management to listen to their grievances, but the group of mostly white ministers was too small to have major impact.

The Catholic bishop of Charleston, Ernest Unterkoefler, said in a private letter that the hospital workers had the right to organize under church social doctrine. But he didn’t mobilize his local pastors and their congregations, with their many white members, to take any collective action in support of the strikers. His private attempts at mediation with hospital management didn’t go anywhere.

Forty-seven years later, 30 Charleston congregations - of all faiths and white and black and integrated – work arm in arm for social justice. They do it through the four-year-old Charleston Area Justice Ministry, whose “direct action” mission has brought major reductions in suspensions and arrests of primarily black students in the Charleston County school system and is making progress on other social-justice issues in the Tricounty area.

On April 18, CAJM will hold its Nehemiah Action Assembly in the sanctuary of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, one of its member congregations. At a March 14 rally at Mount Moriah, CAJM congregations committed to what could fill the church’s sacristy with 2,300 of their members on April 18. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg will be one of the attendees.

In 1969, there was no such solidarity. The Charleston County Council condemned the “unwarranted strike” at the two hospitals, one of which it oversaw.

Change about racial inequality and inequity in Charleston is happening not only within the local religious community but also in business. The One Region initiative of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Charleston Regional Development Alliance is integrating equality and equity into its strategy to make the region more economically competitive in global markets.

As One Region takes shape in 2016, its leadership has pledged to continue the “conversation” it began last fall with representatives of local groups dedicated to racial equality and equity.

Nearly a half a century later, it’s looking as if the racial divisions of the hospital workers’ strike are going into history along with the tumultuous times of that 113-day walkout.