‘I Am Somebody’: A Landmark Documentary’s Enduring Lesson That Labor Rights Are Civil Rights

Illustration for article titled ‘I Am Somebody’: A Landmark Documentary’s Enduring Lesson That Labor Rights Are Civil Rights
Photo: Madeline Anderson, ‘I Am Somebody’ (Icarus Films)

In the spring of 1969, Coretta Scott King stood in front of a packed church in Charleston, S.C., to address a group of striking hospital workers. She wore a simple white dress and layered strands of necklaces, her pressed, shoulder-length hair nestled under a blue cap with 1199 written in large, white lettering.

Advertisement

She called their strike against the Medical College Hospital (MCH) and Charleston County Hospital (CCH) a “crusade of freedom and dignity.” She lambasted the practice of “full-time jobs for part-time pay.” She told the audience, comprised of mostly black women fighting for recognition of their union, that she considered the black woman “perhaps the most discriminated against of all the working women.”

“If my husband were here today, he would be here with you tonight,” King said, receiving thunderous, approving applause in response.

Advertisement

The scene is part of Madeline Anderson’s pioneering civil rights documentary, I Am Somebody, which chronicles a massive strike in which a group of 400 hospital workers—all but 12 of whom were black women–took on the establishment of Charleston, S.C., to fight for fair, livable wages and worker dignity. Covering one of the final marches of the civil rights movement, I Am Somebody was recently selected to become part of the Library of Congress National Film Registry.

The 1970 film’s inclusion is reflective of its historic significance: not only is Anderson a trailblazing filmmaker (she was the first black woman to produce and direct a documentary film), her 28-minute work illuminates labor rights as civil rights, and the crucial role black women have played in both movements. As people around the country today reflect on King’s legacy, I Am Somebody perfectly unites his civil rights work with his labor rights concerns. In 2020, as workers across the country continue to fight for livable wages and worker dignity, the ’69 hospital workers’ strike provides both inspiration and instruction, giving viewers a valuable framework to understanding what a successful labor movement requires.

The strike began after black women hospital workers at the Medical College Hospital moved to unionize after management fired 12 of their colleagues.

“We just had to go on strike,” said Claire Brown, one of the organizers and the film’s main narrator. “Hospital workers had gotten sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Advertisement

Soon after MCH employees began striking, black women working at the Charleston County Hospital joined them at the picket line. The pay they received—$1.30 an hour—was not a livable wage, they argued, and black women workers consistently made less than similarly-qualified white peers. They were also subjected to racist harassment at work. The women wanted recognition of their union, aligning themselves with the 1199 healthcare worker’s union so they would have the resources and support to negotiate with management over improved working conditions.

Advertisement

I Am Somebody shows the scale and significance of that fight. About 14,000 people participated in the strike, which lasted more than 100 days. United against them was the Charleston police force, shown on film with batons and gas masks as they faced off against a diverse and unarmed throng of protesters: students, hospital workers, faith leaders, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and other labor organizers. The state’s political machinery also opposed the striking workers: a 9 p.m. curfew was put in place, and police broke up peaceful, organized events like prayer vigils (arresting the Reverend Charles Abernathy, among many others) under claims they violated the “no night marches” policy. Governor of South Carolina Robert McNair eventually addressed the mounting crisis on television, citing anti-union state laws as an excuse to dismiss the hospital workers’ demands.

But I Am Somebody is less a story about the odds than it is about the allegiances and sacrifices necessary to surmount those challenges. The fact that it feels instructional at times—a sort of union “how to”—is by design. Anderson, who studied to be a teacher before going into film, deliberately cut the documentary to run under 30 minutes so it could be shown in classrooms or on television. What she makes clear is that the hospital workers’ strike was textbook, grassroots coalition building. The workers of the New York chapter of 1199 (referred to in the film by Corretta Scott King as her husband’s “favorite union”) lent their leadership to the strike and chipped in $100,000 toward the women’s’ strike fund (or about $700,000 in today’s dollars). This money was instrumental in making sure the women could stay on strike for as long as it took. The SCLC also lent an organizational hand, with the Rev. Abernathy rallying the strikers in churches that also served as meeting facilities for the hospital workers.

Advertisement

Black students were also integral to the strike, joining the hospital workers—some of whom were their mothers, sisters, aunties and church leaders—and organizing their own demonstrations. One young woman told Anderson that it was important to support the strike because they, eventually, would need those jobs.

“There’s no need for us going to school 12 years and making $1.30 an hour,” she tells the camera.

Advertisement
Claire Brown, one of the main organizers of the 1969 hospital workers’ strike
Claire Brown, one of the main organizers of the 1969 hospital workers’ strike
Screenshot: ‘I Am Somebody’ (Icarus Films)

The bulk of the film’s focus is on the power of collective action (Anderson, as a filmmaker, emphasizes this point by not foregrounding any one personality as a “hero” of the movement), while making clear that solidarity is not without sacrifice. Talking about the workers’ strike kitchen, local 1199 union leader Brown notes they primarily cooked and ate beans and rice, shrugging off the humble meal this way: “That was alright, we didn’t mind.”

Advertisement

Later, sitting next to her husband, Brown talked about the toll the strike took on her family—she was hardly home during the day, she said, and her kids were often left to themselves. Her husband was supportive but needed to take on more childcare duties while working full-time.

“A lot of times, he got sort of upset,” Brown says, as Anderson’s camera lingers on his faint smile. “I’d try to make him understand that this was like my thing, it was something I had to do.”

Advertisement

The only hint at the tension the strike might have caused in their family was the quick clenching and unclenching of his jaw.

Importantly, the strike was also accompanied by a weeks-long boycott of Charleston businesses. Black folks collectively kept their money out of downtown, stymying commerce in white business districts to the tune of $15 million, which translates to an astonishing $100 million by today’s standards.

Advertisement

“All we bought is food and medicine,” Brown said.

But the strike was deeply generous in spirit and purpose. SCLC leaders encouraged other poor, black Charleston residents to join them in the marches and on the picket line, reminding them that better wages for the hospital workers would inspire wage increases in other industries. The police would end up arresting around 1,000 people during the course of the strike—including children. But demonstrators viewed getting arrested as a “badge of honor.” In multiple scenes, Anderson shows arrested demonstrators marching single-file onto off-white S.C. Department of Corrections buses, each person proudly chanting “Soul power” and “I am somebody!”

Advertisement

The establishment eventually buckled. MCH not only recognized the hospital workers’ union, it rehired the 12 workers whose firings had ignited the strike. The women earned wage increases of 30 to 70 cents and a “grievance process they could understand” to protect their rights in the future. What they won at the end of the strike wasn’t just recognition of their union, Brown said, but “recognition as human beings.”

To understand how relevant the Charleston hospital workers’ strike remains today requires a bit of math. Making a $1.30 an hour—the wage the women deemed unlivable—equates to $9.60 in 2020, more than $2 above the current S.C. state and federal minimum wage. After the strike, the workers’ salaries rose to a modern equivalent of $11-$15 an hour. In 2020, only 12 states in the country meet that range for their minimum wage rates, and none exceed it. These stagnant wages explain why, amid high employment rates, the American worker in 2020 feels increasingly compromised and exploited.

Advertisement

“Full-time work for part-time pay” is a slogan that reaches into today’s movements. Farmers and domestic workers still don’t have the formal right to unionize under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (the exclusion was a concession to white supremacists at the time of the New Deal). However, organizations like the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance have pushed to get workplace protections through the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which has been passed in nine states so far. The Fight for $15 is a natural successor of the hospital workers’ strike—and by extension, King’s civil rights work. The movement was kicked off by black women, who walked off their jobs at McDonald’s alleging sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and exploitative wages. So, too, is the Chicago’s teacher strike, which leveraged its contract to push for housing protections, as well as the “harassing and hostile” workplace lawsuits against Amazon, another campaign in which black women have played a crucial role.

Advertisement

While many of the challenges from 1969 remain the same—black women continued to be paid 61 cents to a white man’s dollar—there are arguably more pernicious obstacles in today’s fight for fair labor. Hyper-capitalism has normalized unfair labor practices to the point that even people who self-identify as proponents of civil rights will defend or ignore exploitative labor practices—the sort that keeps a fast-fashion empire like Fashion Nova afloat, for instance. This is simply the work of keeping up with today’s consumer, we tell ourselves. Layoffs and abrupt changes in mission and direction simply fall under the purview of management rights: the need for a company to make a buck justifying all the means.

But the ’69 hospital workers’ strike reminds us that more is possible, and it is possible through grassroots work, intergenerational and interracial solidarity, an unwavering commitment to workers’ dignity, and a persistent—even improbable—faith in the power of collective action.

Advertisement

“If you are ready and willing to fight for yourself, other folks will be ready and willing to fight for you, too,” Brown says at the close of the film. “We’ve got to be together, that’s what a union is all about.”

Staff writer, The Root.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

DISCUSSION

Seeing cops in full fascist regalia, facing off with peaceful workers lawfully protesting for better conditions, always reminds me that they are not fellow Union brothers but cheap mercenaries, gleefully selling out their fellow working class brothers and sisters for the benefit of the wealthy and for their own hollow sense of power.

There is a reason their organizations are called “Benevolent Associations” or some other Orwellian nonsense. It makes it easier to be a Union buster when you can say you aren’t in a Union.

People have fought hard and even died for what we have today. It is such an insult that the wealthy want more at our expense and to destroy the progress already made.

Which side are you on?