Eyes Opened: The Charleston Hospital Workers movement, 1968-69

Photo courtesy Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.

Photo courtesy Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.

Martin Luther King Jr., was a prophet and poet who moved people with his vision and his words.  A prophet sees things that others cannot see.  He then describes what he sees and it comes to life.  Such was King:

“There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled by oppression.  There comes a time when people get tired of being plunged into the abyss of exploitation and nagging injustice.”

I grew up in a segregated south. My father was a farmer. There were six African-American sharecropper families on our farm. I worked side by side with black people.  I played with them.  I hunted with them.  But I did not go to school with them. Much of what I learned about people, life and values, I learned from my black friends. But I did not recognize the obvious injustice of white and colored water fountains and restrooms. It didn’t jolt my awareness that I had no black classmates at the University of North Carolina or in med school at MUSC. I was a junior medical student when I was jolted with the injustice of segregation.

After a particularly grueling on call evening of hospital scut work, when the residents and interns had left for other adventures, I suggested to Mrs. Green the head nurse on 7 East that we go downstairs and partake in the free late night snack. She looked at me and said, “You and I don’t eat in the same dining room.”  Mrs. Green was about my color which in many ways made my lesson more powerful.  I didn’t sleep much that night.  I found myself reviewing the good times with my black friends, both my age and older, and my willingness to buy into the argument that I had heard so many times: “We treat our black people well.” Ironically, this was 1958 when Martin Luther King was emerging as a powerful spokesperson. Television was beginning.  I found myself looking, searching for instances of obvious injustice. They were abundant. The employment rosters in our hospital and medical school had clear color lines above which employees were white. I could visit the black dining room but not the reverse. How long will this take.  When will this change? I became impatient with what Martin Luther King called gradualism. “Good things are happening. Things happen in time.”

Fast forward to 1968, March:  I moved back to Charleston with my wife and two small children to become the chairman of the Department of Psychiatry of the Medical University of South Carolina. Within two weeks, Martin Luther King was assassinated. It had been a year of death. More was to come. Within a year, a set of circumstances arose which would become a major event in MUSC’s history.  A northeastern hospital union, 1099-B, had been in Charleston for at least a year seeking to unionize hospital workers at our hospital and others. The governor had drawn the line. State employees would not be unionized. And while the issue was ostensibly unionization, the core issue was race. Union members would be drawn from the job ranks mostly filled by African-Americans.  Union officials were mostly black.

Coretta Scott King in Charleston. Photo courtesy Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.

Coretta Scott King in Charleston. Photo courtesy Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.

Four hospital employees staged a sit-down in the office of Dr. William McCord, president of the Medical University, who had them physically removed and fired. The strike was on. Many hospital workers walked out. The hospital staff went down to a skeleton force. Threats of violence started against people in the black community who continued to come to work. There were pickets and soon the National Guard was here with a curfew. Special passes were required to come into the hospital after curfew hours.  You couldn’t be on the streets. A few of our students joined the picket lines.

In a well-intended but misguided effort to provide comfort to those employees who were coming to work, Dr. McCord drew a line in the sand and said we will never rehire the strikers. I learned that you never say never. Every morning, the clinical chairmen would meet with State Law Enforcement Division officers (SLED).

Into the scene came the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Martin Luther King’s organization now led by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. The strike lasted several weeks and ultimately a compromise was negotiated as is often the case. It was during those negotiating sessions that I met Andrew Young who was with the SCLC.

I also started a lasting friendship with Father Henry Grant, an African-American Episcopal priest, who ran St. John’s Mission Center on the Eastside.  A few years later, it would become my privilege to chair the board of St. John’s Mission Center and work closely with Henry Grant. Those who knew Father Grant will likely endorse my perception that there was no more dedicated and administratively creative pilgrim in this state. With Henry, every day was an adventure.  He believed deeply that if a child could read he could learn.  St. John’s Mission Center was committed to having every child read. In addition to my work, my wife tutored. It was a wonderful experience for both of us.

If Martin Luther King had been alive, I believe I would have met him during this strike. He would have been here. As I reflect back on those days, as tense and problematic as they were, I am grateful for the growth that occurred in me and many other people. We learned. We made progress. Too slowly, but we made progress.

“We stand at the daybreak of freedom.”

Great progress has been made over the past 50 years since Martin Luther King made that first speech in Montgomery. As a nation, we are increasingly concerned with racial equality, justice and opportunity.

The tragedy of this last while makes us vulnerable to stasis. We cannot stand still. More than anything, I fear stasis. Great things can happen in times of peril. A crisis can become a rehearsal for progress.

Martin Luther King Jr. speaks during the March on Washington.

Martin Luther King Jr. speaks during the March on Washington.

Remember King’s words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial:

“We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.  This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time . . . We stand at the daybreak of freedom.”

King espoused the very thing that is at risk today. He had an enduring belief that time was short. That the quest was urgent. What would he say about our world responsibilities in light of so many of peoples who live in hunger and despair—nations where the seeds of terrorism grow and flourish. It is easy to not see injustice and need as the fertile soil for terror.

The only thing worse than being blind is having eyes that do not see.

I remember the days, months and years that I walked past white/colored water fountains and I did not see. That seems hard to believe now. The lesson I learned is to challenge myself.

What do we walk past every day now and not see? We step across homeless, mentally sick people on the streets of our cities. We know that they are there but do we see them? We feel helpless and choose not to do anything about it. What will people say fifty years from now about that, and us? What about children who grow up on the streets in this country and elsewhere because there is not enough food or protection? Do you look every day for opportunities to eliminate injustice, misery and oppression? Do you seek opportunities for random acts of kindness? What can each of us, you — me, do to further the cause of racial equity and justice, and most of all, the fulfillment of every human’s potential?

We stand at the daybreak of freedom.

— Layton McCurdy, Grace Church Cathedral, Charleston, S.C.