After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, people in cities across the nation aired their grief and anger about his slaying by taking to the streets. Property damage and confrontations with police were not as commonplace as peaceful mourning and quiet reflection, but the passions that consumed cities from Los Angeles to Newark were significant enough to force local and national leadership to ask: Why did cities burn?
The responses were clear. Police brutality. Housing discrimination. Underfunded schools. A lack of good jobs. Few Black-owned businesses. Of all these pressing issues, many mayors and city councils decided to focus on the creation of Black-owned businesses. They believed that the building of Black wealth could mitigate, or distract from, the other consequences of racism. Meanwhile, many white business owners cared little about these answers, and they closed shop and fled inner-city communities. Among them were white-owned McDonald’s franchise owners, who were concerned that they would become greater targets of their neighborhood’s animus in future upheavals. They received the corporate office’s blessing to move on to franchises in white suburbs.
McDonald’s realized that there was a silver lining for the golden arches. In the late 1960s, more and more racial justice advocates and politicians were promoting Black capitalism — the ideology that prioritized Black economic development as a route to Black pride and power — after seeing failures in policy and practice to deliver on the promise of civil rights legislation to protect Black people. Aided by federal programs endorsed by President Richard Nixon to create more Black-owned businesses, supported by major civil rights organizations like the NAACP, and realizing the potential for attracting more Black diners, McDonald’s recruited Black businesspeople to take over the grills and counters of these abandoned stores. After discovering rich profits in the inner-city, where fast food was increasingly becoming one of a few commercial options, McDonald’s poured millions of dollars into expanding its footprint in Black communities with targeted advertising, donations to Black charities, and minority franchisee and supplier programs.
In the decades following this experiment in supporting Black-owned franchises, McDonald’s has held fast to the narrative that its infiltration into Black communities was an act of conscience rather than one of capitalism. When Los Angeles erupted after the acquittal of four officers in the beating of Rodney King in 1992, then-CEO Ed Rensi boasted that restaurants in south Los Angeles were protected from property damage because of McDonald’s “enlightened social policies begun more than three decades ago.”