Charleston has a long and painful history of racism – which the labour movement must come together to resist, says TIM WHEELER
IN THE spring of 1969, Daily World editors asked me to travel down to Charleston, South Carolina, to cover a strike by hospital workers, Local 1199.
I took the night train. The strikers, virtually all African-American women, staged a massive rally at “Mother Emanuel” AME Church.
I was conscious that this was a place laden with history. It was in this church that Denmark Vesey planned a slave revolt in 1822.
He and his five compatriots were hanged. This was the state that sent senator John Calhoun to Washington, the chief ideologue of chattel slavery, who dreamed of a slave empire that encompassed the entire western hemisphere as far south as Tierra del Fuego.
From the artillery emplacements along the battery, the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay on April 12 1861, igniting the civil war.
Mary Moultrie, leader of the 1969 Charleston strike, was soft-spoken, yet the crowd greeted her speech with a standing ovation.
These women were seeking a living wage, dignity on the job. Mother Emanuel was their sanctuary.
The governor had declared a state of emergency, ordering the South Carolina National Guard into Charleston, turning the lovely city into an armed camp.
Ruling circles in South Carolina were determined to smash 1199 in their drive to preserve the South as a “union-free environment.”
Forty-six years later, Mother Emanuel AME is back in the news. Nine African-American women and men, worshipping peacefully in the church, were murdered in an act of racist terrorism by a white supremacist who invaded the sanctuary and opened fire.
Who killed them? The answer from the ruling powers will be that the killer acted alone, a deranged individual.
No, he did not act alone. The killers are those politicians in high places who spout racist rhetoric, inciting hatred and bigotry.
They rant that white people are now the “victims” who must “take back our country” from African-Americans, Latinos, uppity women, gays and lesbians, poor people, and all the other folks fighting for dignity, equality, civil rights and civil liberties.
These racist elements are open in their incitement of hatred of President Barack Obama, our first African-American president.
Among those murdered by the gunman was Reverend Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Mother Emanuel AME.
Pinckney was also a South Carolina state senator who, a few weeks ago, delivered an impassioned speech on the senate floor denouncing the fatal shooting of Walter Scott, an unarmed African-American, by a white police officer in North Charleston.
Scott was unarmed. He had been pulled over for having a broken rear light.
Pinckney’s leadership in the struggle against police use of lethal force against innocent, unarmed African-Americans, was likely the reason the racist killer targeted him for assassination.
Decades after I attended that Local 1199 strike rally, the union-busters struck again in Charleston. It was in 2001 and the target was the predominantly African-American International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422.
Dock workers peacefully picketing to win a decent contract were viciously assaulted by Charleston police and South Carolina troopers.
Five were arrested and charged with incitement to riot. It was the beginning of a year-long nationwide struggle to “Free the Charleston Five.”
Roy Rydell, himself a retired National Maritime Union seafarer, and I travelled to Columbia, South Carolina, to cover a massive rally at the state capitol building to demand freedom for the Charleston Five and a just settlement of the strike.
The labour movement mobilised a campaign so strong that the shipping companies and union-busting forces were compelled to free the Charleston Five.
I returned to Charleston for a victory rally at Local 1422 headquarters on March 2 2002.
In the spring of 2008, Reverend Pierre Williams and I rode a bus organised by the black caucus of the Maryland General Assembly down to Columbia to go door to door to help elect Obama as president. That struggle, too, ended in victory.
There are lessons from these struggles. The labour movement, all progressive forces, must unite against the racist hatemongers.
We must organise solidarity rallies everywhere to express our outrage at this massacre. If the racists succeed in their scheme to divide us along lines of race, ethnicity or gender, they will always win. If we are strong and united, we will always win.