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This Week in People’s History, Mar 19–25

Hospital Workers Win (in 1969), Virginia Racists Split Hairs (1924), Anti-Racist Education Rules (1969), Protesters Beat the Rap (1969), German Troops in Rome (1944), The Fork Not Taken (1989), An Unemployed Army (1894), Transatlantic Slave Trade

Supporters of striking hospital workers marching through Charleston, S.C.
Courtesy Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC.

Charleston Hospital Workers Stand Up (1969)

55 YEARS AGO, on March 19, 1969, in Charleston, South Carolina, more than 400 hospital workers, members of a brand-new local of 1199B, went on strike. The immediate reason for the strike was the firing of 12 local union leaders for "insubordination." In addition to their leaders' reinstatement, the strikers demanded union recognition and the creation of an agreed-upon grievance procedure.  After 14 weeks of a strike that was met with heavy repression, they won a grievance procedure that mandated the union's participation without actual recognition and a modest pay increase. 

The strikers were almost all African-American women employed as laundry workers, kitchen helpers, nurse's aides, licensed practical nurses, maid and orderlies The strike pitted the workers -- who had the support of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, NAACP, and CORE, as well as the AFL-CIO -- against South Carolina's white power structure. Before the strike ended, at least two mass marches, one of which had 10,000 participants, took place. The governor of South Carolina declared a state of emergency, ordered more than 1000 state troopers and bayonet-wielding National Guardsmen to Charleston, and imposed a 9 pm to 5 am curfew. Hundreds of strikers and their supporters were arrested on the picket line. 

Despite the effort to break the strike, it was settled on June 27 when management agreed to rehire the fired workers and to establish a grievance procedure that would mandate the participation of union representatives, just a step short of recognizing the union.…   

Virginia Racists Split Hairs (1924)

100 YEARS AGO, on March 20, 1924, pseudo-scientific racists were flexing their bigoted muscles in Virginia when the state enacted its "Law to Preserve Racial Integrity." Many white Virginians took racism very seriously, making all manner of activities legal for whites, but illegal for everyone else. But under the pressure of the twentieth century, the Virginia government felt the need to tighten up its definition of "white." Hence the Law to Preserve Racial Integrity, under which  "a white person is one with no trace of the blood of another race" with one exception that was important to many individuals of high standing in Virginia society, who claimed to be descendants of John Rolfe, one of Virginia's founding fathers, and his wife, the Powhatan princess  Pocahontes. For the sake of such people, the law allowed that " a person with one-sixteenth of the American Indian, if there is no other race mixture, may be classed as white."

A Big Win for Anti-Racist Education (1969)

55 YEARS AGO, on March 21, 1969, the longest student strike in U.S. history ended with the establishment of the  first -- and only — College of Ethnic Studies on a U.S. campus. Five months earlier, after three years of frustrated efforts to get a Black Studies curriculum approved, the Black Student Union at San Francisco State College had launched a strike that was quickly joined by Latinx and Asian student organizations under the banner of the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF). The 15 strike demands called for relevant curriculum and greater access for students of color at what was then an overwhelmingly white campus.  

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Police occupied the campus for weeks on end. Thousands of white students joined with TWLF in daily battles with the cops; the  campus AFT chapter, representing about one-third of the faculty, went on strike as well. Before it was over, 700 had been arrested, many more were injured, and 27 striking faculty (including Nathan Hare, who developed the Black Studies curriculum) would lose their jobs. But the S.F. State strike’s impact was felt across the country, and continues to  influence today’s battles for educational access and anti-racist curriculum.…

Anti-War Protesters Beat the Rap (1969)

55 YEARS AGO, on March 22, 1969, nine militant  opponents of the US war against Vietnam, including three priests, a  former nun, and a seminary student broke into the downtown Washington, DC, office of Dow chemical and trashed the place to protest Dow's sales of napalm and other supplies to use against Vietnamese freedom fighters. The group, which came to be known as the DC-9, was arrested almost immediately and charged with illegal entry and malicious destruction of property. Two of the protesters pleaded no-contest, but the remaining seven told the judge they would represent themselves at their trial, which took place in February 1970. The judge, who was determined to prevent the defendants from putting the war against Vietnam on trial, would not allow them to defend themselves. Since all the defendants had been caught in the act, the trial was over almost as soon as it began.  But the protesters appealed, arguing that the trial judge should have allowed them to defend themselves, and the appeals court agreed, declaring them to be not guilty and not subject to being retried.…

A Very Bad Day for German Troops in Rome (1944) 

80 YEARS AGO, on March 23, 1944, a small group of anti-fascist Italian partisans made a devastating raid on some 150 German occupation troops in a Rome street, Via Rasella, killing 33 of the Nazis and wounding more than a hundred while escaping unscathed themselves. Not unexpectedly, the Germans retaliated the next day by murdering more than 300 prisoners in cold blood, but the successful attack by the partisans put an end to the fascists' confidence they could use Rome as a safe and relaxing haven from the war in the south. In the words of one Nazi commander, "the morale of our troops was directly affected, since they could not be safely sent to Rome anymore for short periods of rest." Ten weeks later, the Germans were forced to abandon Rome by the advancing allies.   

The Fork Not Taken (1989)

35 YEARS AGO, on March 24 (in 1989), the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took the unprecedented step of using his authority under the Clean Water Act to order an environmental review of plans to build a  major dam near Denver.

In so doing , EPA administrator William Reilly was paying heed to the loud protests of the Audubon Society, the Wilderness Society, the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, and virtually every environmental activist in Colorado.  

Reilly's action put a hold of the development of Two Forks Dam, which was planned to fill the South Platte River's pristine Cheesman Canyon in the Rocky Mountain foothills 35 miles south of Denver. As Reilly said when he announced the review, construction of the dam could result in "the very heavy, final and irremediable loss of an environmental treasure of national significance."
When the review was completed, it ratified Reilly's forecast that the dam would cause  irremediable environmental loss. The project was killed. As a result, Cheesman Canyon remains a part of the natural world, rather than a place to wistfully remember.…;

An Army of Unemployed Workers (1894)

130 YEARS AGO, on March 25, 1894, the U.S. was deep in the second year of one of its worst and most severe economic depressions ever. Millions of workers were unemployed at a time when their only access to food and shelter came from charity or personal savings. 

One response to the crisis was organized by Jacob Coxey, an Ohio political activist and People's Party member. Coxey proposed a mass march on Washington, D.C., something that had never before been attempted. He proposed that tens of thousands of unemployed workers walk to the Capital to demand that Congress fund a national road-building program that would not only provide much needed employment, but also produce a national network of modern roads. Coxey, who lived in northeast Ohio, proposed to lead one contingent of the so-called "Coxey's Army" from his hometown on March 25. Hundreds of similar bands of marchers started walking whenever necessary in order to reach Washington by April 30. The plan was to assemble outside the Capitol and petition Congress to fund a road-building program. Some six thousand men had arrived in Washington by April 30. On May 1 Coxey led a small group to deliver a petition to Congress, but before he reached the Capitol steps he was arrested for walking on the lawn. Congress never received his petition.  

Despite Coxey's lack of success, his effort was praised by many progressives, including Eugene Debs, who was then leading the hard-fought American Railway Union's strike against the Pullman Company. Shortly after Coxey's arrest, Debs wrote that "the calling together from all parts of the continent of a horde of men forced into idleness by no fault of their own, ragged, hungry, and homeless, seeking work or subsistence, levying contributions as they march, everywhere creating unrest and alarm, is a spectacle which no prudent citizen can contemplate with composure. It is a symptom of a national disease ceaselessly boding evil. It is organized poverty, an army of hungry, ragged men, always on the verge of despair, inviting recruits from the ranks of the wretched and forlorn wherever they are found." 

Never Forget the Victims of the Transatlantic Slave Trade 

March 25 is the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, an important occasion to honor those who suffered and died as a consequence of the transatlantic slave trade, the worst violation of human rights in history.