How Charleston's modern protests parallel the city's civil rights movement 

History Repeats?

click to enlarge During the 1969 Charleston hospital workers' strike, black women were at the center of organizing and leading protests

Courtesy Avery Research Center

During the 1969 Charleston hospital workers' strike, black women were at the center of organizing and leading protests

Charleston's place in the civil rights movement isn't typically discussed with the same vigor as Montgomery, Selma or Little Rock, but the black community in the Holy City fought for equality with the same resolve as any other part of the South.

In the last month, demonstrations have been spurred by the killing of George Floyd, leading groups to protest police violence against the black community. Modern marches and rallies have several tangential similarities, but some historians believe the comparisons go deeper than the surface, even if each share their own historical fingerprint.

Some local historians, like College of Charleston professor of African American studies Mari Crabtree, points to both movements heavily featuring black women in leadership. "A lot of the ground work was done by black women," she said.

click to enlarge Mari Crabtree - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Mari Crabtree

One of the most notable examples of local black women organizing their efforts for equality is the 1969 Charleston hospital workers' strike. Employees at the South Carolina Medical College Hospital, now the Medical University of South Carolina, went on strike when 12 coworkers were fired for protesting their treatment.

The strike lasted for over 100 days as hundreds of workers, predominantly women, demanded the reinstatement of their coworkers and recognition of their union. Thanks to the efforts of leaders like Mary Moultrie, Bill Saunders and Naomi White, the strike gained national attention, drawing Coretta Scott King to Charleston to address the hospital workers.

"Many of the hospital workers throughout our nation are women, black women, many of whom are the main supporters of their families," she told the crowd at Emanuel AME Church. "I feel that the black woman in our nation, the black working woman is perhaps the most discriminated against of all of the working women."

Crabtree added that, while both movements have focused on black women, 2020's protests have more intersectional ways of thinking. "We're talking about black trans women, we're talking about black trans men, we're talking about people with disabilities, we're talking about poor people, as well as middle class and wealthy people," she said.

Technology has played a role in exposing controversial police tactics over the past generation. From Rodney King in 1991 to Walter Scott in 2015 to George Floyd in 2020, video has provided the world with a look at police violence. Cell phone video and the ease with which individuals can spread information on social media is one of the most obvious differences in the modern protests and civil rights movement.

But increased access to information is also something the two movements have in common.

click to enlarge Bernard Powers - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Bernard Powers

"One of the things that made the civil rights movement of the '60s successful was also technology," said Bernard Powers, the International African American Museum's interim CEO and president. "Electronic mass media was much more accessible to people in that time period."

Powers points to Black Lives Matter rallies in London and Paris as further evidence of technology's efficacy in spreading the current civil rights movement. The organization even boasts three official chapters in Canada. "The overt international identification with the mood of the demonstrators and the cause of the demonstrators" is the biggest difference, he said. "And that has everything to do with technology."

Crabtree agrees, noting social media has become a useful tool to disseminate video evidence of police officers beating and arresting protesters. In fact, long before it was a rallying cry and the name of a social movement, Black Lives Matter started as a Twitter hashtag.

click to enlarge Modern protests have focused on a variety of subjects, notably police violence - LAUREN HURLOCK FILE
  • Lauren Hurlock file
  • Modern protests have focused on a variety of subjects, notably police violence

Charleston City Councilman Robert Mitchell, who marched in the civil rights movement in Charleston believes that nonviolent protesting was a much bigger tenet of the '50s and '60s. "It was a little different than today," he said. "We had so much discrimination going on at that time, the same as today, but it was a little more because we could not go sit into other restaurants."

Robert Mitchell - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Robert Mitchell

"You had the white college, the black college, the white water fountain, the black water fountain," he said. "But we changed those things by protesting, marching, but everything was nonviolent."

Mitchell hopes the current protests will change some things, but suggested that more work lies ahead for demonstrators. "Protests will change some things, but I think people as a whole, will have to change themselves individually inside," he said. "As far as systemic racism is concerned, individuals will have to change that."

The racial demographics of protesters in the modern era have been heavily discussed since the George Floyd demonstrations began. In Charleston and nationally, a lot has been made of the influx of other races marching alongside the black community. "The demonstrators look like America," Powers observed, adding that the civil rights movement's protesters were "overwhelmingly" black.

Powers also believes that this is the first political action many young demonstrators have taken part in. "They felt motivated to do something because they have seen before their very eyes the cavalier extinction of black life," he said.

The comparisons and contrasts between the two movements vary in the short term, but the real differences can only be seen over time. After all, the civil rights movement spanned from the '50s through the '60s. "We want things to change overnight, but certainly as a historian, I know that it takes a while for change to happen," Powers said. "That's the reality."

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