The Surprising History of McDonald’s and the Civil Rights Movement
Say the name McDonald’s, and what comes to mind? Tasty hamburgers or hardened arteries? Entry-level jobs or dead-end McJobs? Responsive community outreach or mercenary corporate power?
In “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America,” Marcia Chatelain has written a smart and capacious history suggesting that McDonald’s should summon all of those thoughts, and then some.
The cover image on her book encapsulates the multiple layers of the story she tells. On first glance it simply looks like a photograph of two people smiling in front of a McDonald’s as one helps the other register to vote, but on closer inspection the picture has been manipulated to look grainy and frayed. The history in this book is similarly hopeful and fraught, recounting a “somewhat bizarre but incredibly powerful marriage between a fast-food behemoth and the fight for civil rights.”
Fast food is now so cheap and readily available that its consumption is associated more with straitened circumstances than with affluent ones, but that wasn’t always the case. Chatelain, a history professor at Georgetown and the
author of “South Side Girls,” about the experiences of black girls in Chicago during the Great Migration, recalls the early days of restaurant franchising in the 1940s and ’50s, when fast-food chains emerged as emissaries of the American dream — with all the complexities of race and money that entailed.
Roadside restaurants generally started out as a suburban phenomenon, many of them clustered in Southern California, catering to the mostly white beneficiaries of the postwar boom. By 1954, these restaurants included a few outlets owned by the McDonald brothers, when a milkshake machine salesman named Ray Kroc offered to help them expand. Kroc eventually took over the business in 1961. The Greensboro, N.C., sit-ins had taken place the year before, and civil rights activists began to turn their attention toward roadside restaurants like McDonald’s, which either refused service to black people in the Jim Crow South or forced them to place their orders at separate windows.
As Chatelain describes it, those early battles between McDonald’s and civil rights activists mainly revolved around who got served and who got hired. Later, activists began to petition for black ownership of franchises located in black neighborhoods, a demand that McDonald’s was initially slow to meet but eventually pursued out of shrewd self-interest. After the uprisings that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 1968, when a number of white franchisees and employees fled their stores, the corporation set out on a nationwide search to do something it had never done before: enlist a black franchise owner.
This turning point is where Chatelain’s book really takes off, as she documents how McDonald’s came to play a growing role in black communities, offering not only food and jobs but also sponsorships ranging from funds for the local Little League team to grants for the N.A.A.C.P. Today, the online portal 365Black.com showcases the company’s cultural efforts, including a Gospel tour and an event featuring the rapper 2 Chainz.
But the partnership between the civil rights movement and the McDonald’s Corporation bristled with compromises and contradictions from the beginning. Chatelain includes a memorable anecdote about Ralph Abernathy, King’s successor as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who toured the country in 1969 and rejected the idea that opening up modes of production to black entrepreneurs meant that benefits would inevitably trickle down.
“I don’t believe in black capitalism,” Abernathy declared, echoing King’s demands for economic justice. “I believe in black socialism.” Yet when visiting Chicago, he accepted a $1,300 donation for the S.C.L.C. from McDonald’s. Chatelain describes it as the first of many donations from the corporation to civil rights organizations, which increasingly yoked “King’s dream to Kroc’s dream, despite the two men’s hopes for the world being miles apart.”
The discrepancy between Abernathy’s words and deeds is the kind of hypocrisy that might get him denounced by political purists nowadays, but Chatelain is less accusatory and more circumspect. Throughout this impressively judicious book, she is attuned to the circumstances that encouraged increasingly intricate ties between McDonald’s and black communities across the country. This isn’t
just a story of exploitation or, conversely, empowerment; it’s a cautionary tale about relying on the private sector to provide what the public needs, and how promises of real economic development invariably come up short.
Chatelain is critical of the fast food industry, showing how it was the undisputed beneficiary of government largess. A highway system bisected communities and created captive markets, offering McDonald’s opportunities for growth in the 1970s, when the growth of suburban outlets was flagging as gas prices started to rise. Franchisees could take advantage of federal loans, which Chatelain calls “corporate welfare to the inner city.”
As for black capitalism, she argues it was never going to be a sustainable remedy for economically desperate neighborhoods, even if she can understand why black leaders — in communities long underserved by the government — would feel pressed to take a chance on what the marketplace might yield. “Increasingly, as fast food expanded,” she writes, “the choice between a McDonald’s and no McDonald’s was actually a choice between a McDonald’s or no youth job program.”
“Franchise” is a serious work of history, and Chatelain has taken care to interview the surviving principals involved, but she also includes some lighter details to round out her picture. After reading a fascinating chapter tracing corporate efforts to burnish the McDonald’s brand with black customers, you might never look at a Filet-O-Fish the same way again. When, in the 1970s, a market research firm set out to learn why the sandwich underperformed among black patrons, respondents said they associated the Filet-O-Fish with white public figures like Mary Tyler Moore and Henry Kissinger.
Chatelain writes very little about the food itself, but when she does, she’s resolutely nonjudgmental about why people eat it. She’s frank about her own experiences of McDonald’s: “For most of my life, I have eaten there and enjoyed it.” Her sense of perspective gives this important book an empathetic core as
well as analytical breadth, as she draws a crucial distinction between individuals actors, who often get subjected to so much scrutiny and second-guessing, and larger systems, which rarely get subjected to enough.
“History encourages us to be more compassionate toward individuals navigating few choices,” Chatelain writes, “and history cautions us to be far more critical of the institutions and structures that have the power to take choices away.”