“To Preach the Gospel to the Poor”

By Sarah Quigley, Project Archivist, Southern Christian Leadership Conference records

Ralph David Abernathy assumed the presidency of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Roughly one year later, twelve members of Local 1199B of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in Charleston, South Carolina were fired by Medical College Hospital after trying to organize a union in the hospital.  Following the dismissal, over 60 other employees walked out and began a strike that lasted through the summer.  Strike leadership soon contacted the SCLC to enlist the organization’s support.  Over the next several months, Abernathy, along with other civil rights leaders, conducted nonviolence training workshops for demonstrators, spoke in churches and led rallies in protest of the firings


During the demonstrations, Abernathy was arrested twice, ultimately spending several weeks in jail.  From his jail cell, he wrote Letter from a Charleston Jail.  Intended to imitate Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Abernathy’s letter was a call for nonviolent resolution of the dispute, and a plea to the community to support the workers.  In August, the State of South Carolina put an end to the strike by raising the wages of all state employees to the Federal minimum of $1.60, and hospital administration rehired striking workers.  In his autobiography, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, Abernathy described the Charleston strike as the first action planned and executed under his leadership, and the first real test of his presidency.  Ultimately, he saw the action in Charleston as the first opportunity for victory following the disappointments of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. 

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference records at Emory University contain an original draft of Letter from a Charleston Jail, as well as other materials documenting Abernathy and SCLC’s involvement with the hospital workers’ strike.  Additional correspondence, writings including speeches and sermons, photographs and subject files document Abernathy’s whole tenure as President of SCLC from 1968-1977.  Of particular note are planning files for the Poor People’s Campaign and Operation Breadbasket, as well as a significant number of letters sent to Abernathy following his arrest in Resurrection City in 1968.  The letters provide interesting insight into popular opinion regarding the organization’s demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and Abernathy’s leadership in particular.  The collection is currently closed for processing.  For more information, please contact the archivist.

Selected pages from the draft copy of Letter from a Charleston Jail.

“Working for Freedom:  Documenting Civil Rights Organizations” is a collaborative project between Emory University, the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, the Amistad Research Center at Tulane, and the Robert W. Woodruff Library of Atlanta University Center to uncover and make available previously hidden special collections documenting the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta and New Oreleans.  The project is administered by the Council on Library and Information Resources with funds from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.