By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
CHARLESTON — Over 30 years ago, race relations in Charleston were just starting to turn the corner of change.
In the midst was a certain Father Thomas Duffy. In 1969 the priest, who was to become one of the Diocese of Charleston’s most vocal and visible human rights activists, took a very public stand when he was arrested while protesting with striking hospital workers at the Medical College of South Carolina. Six-hundred black workers started the strike on March 20, 1969 for an increase in wages and improved working conditions in addition to their recognition as a union.
“The hospital workers, nurse’s aids, and orderlies, who were all black, were making less than the minimum wage,” Msgr. Duffy said.
He was arrested with the late Trappist Father Richard Sanders on April 27, 1969, in violation of a court injunction limiting the number of picketers, and both were released on bond pending a hearing. Father Leo Croghan and Holy Ghost Father William Joyce, both deceased, were arrested the following day for violating a city ordinance that requires a march permit, and received 30-day sentences.
“It’s not about me or the four priests, it’s about the Church involved in a bigger issue,” Duffy avers.
But it was the four religious, dubbed “The Militant Clergy” by the press, who helped bring the situation to the attention of Catholics and Christians. Before the strike began, they had been asked by Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler to meet with the workers’ representatives, black and white ministers from Charleston area churches, and hospital administration. Father Joyce was the chairman of the Concerned Clergy and tried to mediate.
“We felt that they (the workers) had a right to organize,” Msgr. Duffy said.
The talks went nowhere, however, and a strike began.
The stories made headlines in the News and Courier, The Catholic Banner, the National Catholic Reporter and was referenced in an editorial in The New York Times. Father Leon J. Hubacz also paid for an advertisement in editorial form in the News and Courier.
On April 24, The Catholic Banner reported that leaders of nine major civil rights groups joined with “five black people in elective public offices” to make a statement supporting the 600 hospital workers on strike for “union and human rights.”
In the article, Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., recalled that “the right of (Charleston hospital) workers to be represented by a union is precisely the same issue that led to tragedy last year,” referring to her husband’s assassination.
Mrs. King was also accompanied by representatives from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
More than 500 people were arrested by April 25. Fathers Duffy and Sanders had joined other members of the Concerned Clergy in the protest a week before. Several black ministers were arrested that day.
“The white ministers said that they couldn’t strike because their families would experience repercussions or their parishioners would get upset,” Msgr. Duffy remembered.
The priest decided to engage in civil disobedience to “hopefully raise civic consciousness.” Ironically, Father Duffy was the prison chaplain at the time as well as director of Catholic Charities. He had decided to be arrested without discussing it. On April 27, as he and Father Sanders stood in the front of the line with the picketers, he watched as police arrested people from the back of the line to avoid the priests. Not to be foiled, Fathers Duffy and Sanders quickly made their way to the other end of the line and gave the officers no choice.
Once in jail, Father Duffy did not try to make bail.
“I wanted everyone to know that local people were concerned about what was going on,” he said.
Three days and two nights later, both priests were out. Fathers Croghan and Joyce were tried in the city’s court for disturbing the peace. Duffy and Sanders were tried in state court for contempt —breaking an injunction. The priests refused the services of union lawyers and were represented by their own lawyers, Charles M. Gibson and Cummings Gibbes, who volunteered their services.
“The priests were there because we believed in what these people were asking and we wanted to represent the church’s support of people’s rights to organize and the right of people to have minimum wage,” he said.
It is interesting to note, added the priest, that he and Father Sanders never received a sentence. To this day, Msgr. Duffy does not know how his case disappeared from the books.
On Mother’s Day, May 11, a march attracted 10,000 people from South Carolina and out of state. During the strike, more than 1,000 of the National Guard were dispatched and a curfew was imposed on the city of Charleston from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Gov. Robert E. McNair backed the hospitals’ stance maintaining that the institutions were not in a position to negotiate with a union because their budgets were set by annual legislative appropriation. Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler tried to negotiate with hospital administration to prevent the strike but was unsuccessful in his efforts.
In a pre-emptive measure, administrative officials of St. Francis Xavier Hospital and representatives of Local 1199B union met with the Bishop and his staff on March 31 and agreed that workers had a right to organize to have representation and to inform management of their desire for representation, and management had a right to be assured that a majority of workers have a desire for representation.
The strike was eventually settled and the union was not recognized. The workers, however, did receive minimum wage. When all was said and done, one interviewer asked Father Duffy what he hoped to achieve.
“What I hoped was that the working people would be able to hold their heads up and know that together they can accomplish something,” he said.