by Brian Hicks
It’s a shame Mary Moultrie didn’t live to see this.
Last week, trustees for the Medical University of South Carolina apologized for the hospital’s policy of racial discrimination that led to the 1969 hospital strike.
So bravo, and better late than never because — make no mistake — it was discrimination, pure and simple.
The hospital had a policy of paying black “non-professional workers” — the nurse’s aides, the food service workers, the people who changed the bed linens — 30 cents an hour less than the federal minimum wage.
When Moultrie tried to organize workers to combat this institutional mistreatment, the state stepped in, ignored the discrimination and made unions the issue.
It was shameful.
Other than the Orangeburg Massacre, South Carolina trudged through the civil rights movement without as many horrible incidents as, say, Alabama or Mississippi. But we made up for it with the hospital strike, largely considered one of the last major fights of the civil rights era.
Apparently a lot of people in the state had not heard about the Civil Rights Act, which was five years old at the time. That, or they ignored the part that outlawed discrimination in the workplace based on gender, religion or race.
But then, South Carolina has a long history of flouting federal law.
Justice for all?
In today’s terms, 30 cents an hour doesn’t sound like much.
No doubt there are still some Neanderthals around who say “big deal.” Well, it was.
Set aside the matter of principle and discrimination for a moment.
In 1969, $1.30 was the 2015 equivalent of $8.45. But the federal minimum wage was $1.60 — $10.40 in today’s dollars.
Note the minimum wage hasn’t kept up with inflation, but that’s a whole different problem.
Moultrie was a shy, quiet woman. The fact that she would even take up this fight is a testament to her unflagging sense of right and wrong.
And how did the state respond? First, protesters were told they could only picket in an area 20 yards wide on the sidewalk — and there could not be more than 10 of them at a time. Try telling the tea partiers that today, and they will rightly tell you about the Constitution and free speech.
Then state officials sent in the National Guard to protect the city from a bunch of nurse’s aides walking around in paper hats — not exactly the hardened criminal types.
You know, when the Nixon White House — the architects of the insidious Southern strategy — steps in and says this is a problem, it’s a safe bet the state is messed up.
But it took 100 days for the hospitals — the County Hospital was in on this low-pay scam, too — to back down, pay workers the minimum wage and hire back the striking workers they’d fired.
It is crazy to think that all this went on just 46 years ago. But honestly, if some politicians had their way, we’d return to those “simpler” times when “justice for all” carried an asterisk that said “for white people.”
Shaken from apathy?
MUSC was working on this apology with state Sens. Marlon Kimpson and Clementa Pinckney back in the spring.
So this was one of the last public services Pinckney would perform before he was gunned down in cold blood at Mother Emanuel — simply for the sin of being black.
In some ways, it is inspiring that the death of the Rev. Pinckney and eight others has shaken people from apathy and forced them to confront the racial issues that still exist in society.
In other ways, it is horrible that it’s taken such an extreme act to force people into action.
Not too many years ago, then-Gov. Mark Sanford apologized for the Orangeburg Massacre. He actually caught some grief for that, which is proof some people are still living in the Stone Age.
Let’s hope MUSC doesn’t get any criticism for doing the right thing as well.
The only possible critique of the board’s action is that it didn’t come sooner.
Moultrie, who died a few months ago, deserved an apology as much as anyone.