[Marxism] The Surprising History of McDonald’s and the Civil Rights Movement

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jan 9 15:36:08 MST 2020

NY Times, Jan. 9, 2020
The Surprising History of McDonald’s and the Civil Rights Movement
By Jennifer Szalai

Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America
By Marcia Chatelain
Illustrated. 324 pages. Liveright. $28.95.

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.”

Follow Jennifer Szalai on Twitter: @jenszalai.

More information about the Marxism mailing list