In March, the South Carolina Poor People’s Campaign celebrated the leaders of the historic 1969 Charleston Hospital Workers Strike and committed to continuing the work of organizing poor people today. Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, director of the Kairos Center and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, shared these remarks at the event.
It is truly humbling to be here in Charleston to recognize the 50th anniversary of the Charleston Hospital Workers Strike. The strike was a deeply important struggle led by some of Charleston’s most impacted residents. And it was not just a strike for hospital workers, for South Carolina, but it was for everyone concerned with the evils of racism and poverty, for all of us interested in truth and justice and love. It is humbling to be among and remember community leaders who fought and died for workers’ rights, health care rights, education rights — rights that my family was also denied and which has personally compelled me to get involved in the Poor People’s Campaign. Today, we recognize many unsung saints, forgotten heroes who refused to surrender to suffering, risked everything, withstood militarized police intervention, and faced hunger, eviction and mean and evil racism. These same heroes insisted that all work has dignity, all people are made in God’s image and that we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.
Fifty years after the strike, we are living in a time when there are 140 million poor and low-income people living in the United States. Today, sixty-two million workers make less than a living wage and millions don’t have health care insurance. Even those who do have insurance often can’t afford the medicine they need to live, including many health care workers who don’t have health care for themselves. Although two-thirds of the world is made of water, there are fifteen million families who can’t afford it, and just this morning four million homes turned on their faucets and found poisoned water instead of clean drinking water. There are millions of people who are homeless, and yet we have the technology to 3D print houses en masse and there are millions of luxury houses that stand empty.
When workers are being poisoned, teachers and students are being denied their rights and hospital workers still need to organize, we know that we must pick up the torch from the hospital strikers of fifty years ago and run the next mile. We must organize young and old, white and black, Latino and indigenous, folks of all faith and no faith, low wage workers and farmworkers, homeless people and hospital workers, and people whose votes have been suppressed by racist voter suppression. We must organize and agitate, sing and educate, protest and dedicate … dedicate that before this Campaign fails we’ll all go down to jail because everybody’s got a right to live.
I am inspired by the words of Mary Moultrie, who, when strikers won a historic marker for the hospital strike of 1969, said, “the only way to do this historical marker justice is to recognize that the struggle for equality, fairness, and democracy is continuous.” And I believe that all of us who are here, and all of the grassroots impacted people, clergy, activists and advocates in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival must summon our inner Mary Moultrie, our inner Louise Brown and our inner Rosa Parks for the struggle we’re waging now.
As people know, Mrs. Coretta Scott King and Mrs. Rosa Parks came to Charleston in 1969 at the call of the strikers, about six weeks into the strike. This was the same Rosa Parks who one year earlier went to DC for the Poor People’s Campaign, who took part in the People’s Tribunal in 1967, who went to Lowndes County (where they still don’t have sanitation services today) in 1966, who went to DC for the March on Washington in 1963, who joined Detroit’s Great Walk in 1963, who refused to give up her seat on that bus in Montgomery in 1954, who went to Kilby Prison in 1948 to help with legal support for Black men, who met with Recy Taylor in 1944 and on and on and on. There’s that saying that the mark of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting different results. But, when I think about the determination of Rosa Parks, I must say no, it is a mark of the courage of visionaries like Rosa Parks, Louise Brown, Mary Moultrie and many of the leaders here with us today.
So, we know what we must do and who must lead the way. We must build a massive, strong, rooted movement led by those most impacted by racism and poverty. And we’re going to protest, picket, engage in nonviolent direct action and organize to make it happen.
We are now in the season of Lent. We are preparing for Holy Week. This is the time when we remember the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who was a poor person, a low wage worker, a freedom fighter and someone deemed a trouble maker and a revolutionary by the authorities. In the Bible, after Jesus enters the Temple and engages in nonviolent civil disobedience by turning over the tables of the money changers, he teaches that how we treat the homeless and the hungry is how we treat God. Afterward, he cries out against the hypocrites who build monuments to freedom fighters who have come before, but who won’t spend one day actually building a movement to confront the principalities and powers of empire and transform the whole of society.
After Jesus is anointed as messiah to usher in a reign of justice for the poor and every person, he teaches that a nation that is obedient to God must end poverty. He explains that if we forgive debts and release slaves and pay workers what they deserve, there will be no poor among us. After his friends turn on him and Judas sells him out for money, after they divide his clothes among the armed guards and police who have occupied the whole city, and after Jesus cries out and breathes his last breath, the curtain of the temple falls down and the tombs of the prophets and freedom fighters break open.
Even before Jesus is resurrected, those freedom fighters are resurrected. They join the movement and help to lead it. And when people see them getting involved, protesting and winning, the movement grows. Today, in South Carolina, we are resurrecting the Poor People’s Campaign and resurrecting the Charleston Hospital Workers Strike of 1969. We are recommitting ourselves to organize. To build a movement, to raise up a multi-racial, inter-generational nonviolent army of the poor that will break every chain of racism, poverty, ecological devastation and militarism. Every chain of injustice.
Can you hear the chains falling?