Desegregating McDonald’s

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Late last year, news broke that McDonald’s black franchise owners were leaving the fast-food chain. Business Insider reported that the reason for the exodus, according to the CEO of the National Black McDonald’s Owners Association (NBMOA), was that the “the trajectory of the treatment of African American Owners is moving backwards,” preventing black-owned stores from prospering. And today, two McDonald’s executives filed a lawsuit accusing the chain of driving African-Americans out. The news is only the latest chapter in the story of McDonald’s complicated relationship with its black franchise owners and the wider black community, a relationship that forms the subject of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America.

In her new book, author Marcia Chatelain traces how fast-food franchise ownership became one of the biggest contributors to black wealth in America, including the opening of the first black-owned McDonald’s in 1968 and the formation of the NBMOA a few years later. But before black people could own McDonald’s franchises, they needed to fight to receive the same service at McDonald’s restaurants as white customers. In this excerpt, Chatelain describes a 1963 sit-in protest at a McDonald’s in Pine Bluff, Arkansas that may not have generated the same headlines as the lunch counter sit-ins it followed, but was nonetheless a pivotal moment in McDonald’s history with black America. — Monica Burton


Much of the public memory surrounding the invigoration of the southern sit-in movement is associated with national companies and local-level chains that have all but vanished from most American cities: Woolworth’s, S. H. Kress & Company, and Rexall drugstores. There are fewer commemorations of the activists who devoted their energies to desegregating the fast food restaurants that are still with us today.

After winning concessions with Main Street and central-city business, protesters began to turn an eye toward roadside businesses, which had largely avoided the attention and disruption of the sit-ins. Protesters had to improvise on the sit-in strategies because restaurants like McDonald’s and its peers did not provide seating inside of their stores. Drive-ins either refused service to blacks or operated out of separate windows, which would only be tended to after whites had placed orders. Joe McNeil recounted that, at McDonald’s in Greensboro, North Carolina “you were required to go to the rear of a McDonald’s and place your order.”  The fight to end segregation required the same meticulous organizing and dedication as the first round of sit-ins.

Between 1960 and 1963 the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and NAACP branches organized protests against segregated McDonald’s restaurants. In Memphis, movement leaders had already celebrated the removal of Colored waiting signs at the Greyhound bus station and were engaged in a lawsuit to desegregate the public libraries when they began a campaign against McDonald’s. The group of protesters targeted the city’s first McDonald’s in March of 1960.

The location had been open nearly two years, and as the 20th franchise in his McDonald’s System, Ray Kroc must have been aware of the tensions between the franchisee, Saul Kaplan, and black customers. There is no record of Kroc publicly acknowledging or addressing the sit-in movement. Each franchisee was responsible for QSCV, the shorthand for Kroc’s top priorities: quality, service, cleanliness, and value. If protests disrupted the franchise’s ability to make sales, keep the stores tidy, or make every hamburger according to the manual, then the franchisee would have to deal with it. Kroc stayed out of civil rights. But civil rights would not ease up on Kroc’s prized possession. Kaplan tried to stand his ground against the protests. But the NAACP won out after an 18-month, city-wide campaign against Kaplan and other discriminating restaurants. They not only opened the drive-in to black customers, but they also secured a guarantee to hire black employees.

In the spring of 1963, CORE strengthened campaigns against McDonald’s in North Carolina by assisting fed-up black customers in High Point and Asheville. In Greensboro, SNCC and community activists were not resting on their laurels from the 1960 wins. Asheville, North Carolina, native Lewis Brandon took the skills he acquired sitting in at Woolworth’s and Kress’s to the area McDonald’s. Brandon was among a subset of Greensboro activists who set their sights on “attacking the problems with desegregation in the city” outside of the downtown core. In early May of 1963, Greensboro Movement activists gathered outside the McDonald’s in a commercial strip at 1101 Summit Avenue, less than two miles from the Woolworth’s counter. Armed with signs that said, “Mc — Don’t Set America Back — Get on the Right Track,” the group of mostly college students demanded that the drive-in that opened the previous year end its segregation practices.

On the first night of the protest, Brandon and other demonstrators had rocks thrown at them outside the McDonald’s. When they returned to the North Carolina A&T State campus, they were harassed by people throwing glass bottles at their dorms. The protesters returned to McDonald’s the next day, but this time Greensboro police were dispatched to deter their action. The arrests drew more supporters to the group, and they were joined on the third day by local high school students and community members. A minister involved in the McDonald’s campaign told leaders: “Now, you’ve got something going here. Keep it going and I’ll have a mass meeting at my church and we’ll turn out the adult community.”  Further mobilization would not be necessary. The McDonald’s franchisee did not want any more negative publicity and relented within four days of the first protest. Blacks would no longer have to wait until whites had been served before they could order their meals.

While Greensboro was settling its dispute with McDonald’s, Chicago-based CORE members were meeting with the company’s executives and explaining the urgent need to end segregation in southern drive-ins. CORE left the gathering with a commitment that McDonald’s would order franchisees to “hire [blacks], upgrade, and desegregate all Southern units” by May 15, 1963. On May 25, McDonald’s in Durham stopped segregating black customers.

Franchisees were often selected and retained based on their sense of duty to the restaurant’s mandates. But some southern operators did not accept the new order, so blacks continued to apply pressure on their local McDonald’s. In the winter of 1963, SNCC took on a citywide desegregation effort in Arkansas targeting ­McDonald’s #433. The McDonald’s drive-in was in a residential area in Pine Bluff, a town 40 miles south of Little Rock. The franchise opened the previous year on July 3, 1962, just in time for Independence Day celebrations. Within six months of the grand opening, members of SNCC’s Pine Bluff branch became aware that the McDonald’s was barring black customers from service, and they folded the restaurant into its larger plan to transform the city.

The Pine Bluff contingent started developing a plan to demand that blacks be served at McDonald’s. After exhausting their patience for polite requests and appeals to the city, SNCC mounted a four-day-long demonstration in early August of 1963. Vivian Carroll Jones and other Pine Bluff volunteers entered the restaurant one by one and formed a line in front of the order counter. They were ignored. Jones remembered, “the orders were served over our heads to white customers,” while the demonstrators remained in line. As was common across the South, the protesters’ passive resistance was met by a crowd’s escalating emotions.

The white patrons began pushing and cursing at the demonstrators. The protesters drew upon the training that SNCC provided on how to remain calm and unresponsive to the invectives, slurs, insults, threats, shoves, and slaps. The mob persisted. The SNCC team refused to respond. Eventually, their attention shifted to sounds coming from outside the restaurant, where a single-arch neon sign beckoned customers to McDonald’s Hamburgers. Sensible ­drivers proceeding down Pine Bluff’s Main Street toward the restaurant may have kept on driving when they saw a “mob of about 200 white youth . . . carrying bats, bottles, and bricks.” There were also plenty of people in Pine Bluff who wanted to teach SNCC a lesson. They were the same kind of people who had been harboring their outrage since the Little Rock Nine had the president of the United States protect their right to attend the crown jewel of southern high schools. Those folks headed to the parking lot or across the street and joined the mob.

Jones felt the temperature rise inside the restaurant; maybe it was stress that was making her sweat. She looked around and noticed that everyone looked flush and overheated as they breathed in the air thick with the smell of hamburgers left too long on grills and the perspiration of the workers, protesters, and customers. Someone had locked them inside of the McDonald’s out of concern for their safety. But no one felt secure. A McDonald’s employee had disabled the air-conditioning unit in the restaurant, and as the temperatures rose, Jones wondered if she would make it out alive. Anyone involved in SNCC knew that civil rights demonstrations, protests, and mass meetings, as well as car trips through unfamiliar territory, and even talking back to your boss or a storekeeper, could all have deadly consequences. Activism had taken the lives of people demanding the basic rights of American citizenship before — whether you were seeking a ballot or a burger, standing up for yourself could lead to your death.

Then, the doors to the McDonald’s were unlocked, allowing the group to inhale some desperately needed fresh air. But the respite turned into a brutal reckoning as local police charged for the SNCC members and arrested them for “failure to leave a place of business.” The officers did little to protect the arrestees from the rabidity of their canines or the madness of the crowd of Pine Bluff’s segregation advocates. Someone in the mob attacked three young women with a makeshift weapon of ammonia. An injured Arkansas Agricultural and Mechanical student hoped that a handkerchief would soothe her burning face, but it would be of no help. Instead, the chemical devoured the cloth.

The visit left protesters traumatized, injured, and with arrest records, but nothing had changed at the Pine Bluff McDonald’s. Nearly a year of strategizing and protesting yielded no changes, and the Pine Bluff freedom workers called for a “nationwide protest” against the hundreds of McDonald’s locations coast to coast. Perhaps under advisement from McDonald’s headquarters or local businesses, the Pine Bluff franchise operator used the courts in an attempt to dress down the activists and impede further demonstrations. The franchisee saw that SNCC would not back down from “mass arrests, beatings, and the throwing of acid,” so he figured that an injunction banning further action at the restaurant may be the solution to his problem. Store owners, school boards, and cities filed injunctions against major civil rights organizations throughout the 1950s and 1960s to suppress boycotts, marches, and demands to enforce the laws equally. Even when judges ruled these injunctions unconstitutional, the process of responding to the orders in court could tie up precious movement time and slow momentum. If activists defied the injunctions, it put them at risk for arrests as they awaited the news if the order was indeed enforceable.

In late November, two SNCC field secretaries accompanied Pine Bluff members to a hearing on whether a McDonald’s franchise could permanently ban SNCC from protesting at the restaurant. The order was also filed to keep members of the Arkansas chapter of the “NAACP and Black Muslims” from mobilizing in front of the store. McDonald’s inflexibility was particularly enervating considering that SNCC found “most lunch counters” in the area were racially integrated.

In February of 1964, after a full year of action, the Pine Bluff McDonald’s moved to desegregate. Food historian Angela Jill Cooley believes that fast food chains in the South were particularly loyal to the local customs of segregation even when maintaining it was against their own interests or was out of step with other businesses. Cooley discovered that “when McDonald’s implemented indoor seating, in the midst of civil rights sit-in activism, many Southern franchisees practiced racial segregation even when other local eateries had abolished the practice.”  Franchises with ties to profitable corporate brands may have felt less ­motivated to comply with federal ­antidiscrimination policies because their parent companies did not demand it, or because they did not feel as beholden to local community challenges. Regardless of how franchises approached the new law, the sit-ins and the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not adjourn the conversation about restaurants and racism.

If Kroc and his associates knew about the Pine Bluff protests — which was highly likely as Kroc was known to be controlling to the point of obsession about his restaurants — then it was either too insignificant or too damning to be included in his biography and other official accounts of McDonald’s history. If McDonald’s executives remained silent about Pine Bluff because they believed that the racial violence and chaos in Arkansas was an outlier, an issue that had nothing to do with Speedee (the original McDonald’s mascot) or his growing dominance in the burger market, then they would soon learn better. Kroc’s McDonald’s — only 10 years old when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and made it a violation of federal law to keep people out of McDonald’s, a Howard Johnson’s, the local swimming pool, or a movie theatre — was maturing in a turbulent decade, and the company would have to grow up fast in unfamiliar territory: America’s inner cities.

From Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America by Marcia Chatelain. Copyright © 2020 by Marcia Chatelain. Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.