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

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“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.”

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