Professor Marcia Chatelain on McDonald's and MLK
tags: MLK Day,MLK,history,McDonalds,skipped history,marcia chatelain,franchise
To reflect on Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, celebrated on Monday, I spoke to Professor Marcia Chatelain about the interconnected rise of McDonald’s. Professor Chatelain is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America.
Professor Chatelain and I discussed McDonald’s growth in Black communities following MLK’s death, corporations’ distortion of MLK’s legacy, and the long entrenchment of food inequity. A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below.
Ben: Professor Chatelain, thank you so much for being here.
MC: An absolute pleasure, Ben.
Ben: Of course—it's all downhill from here. To begin, who started McDonald’s and when?
MC: So Richard and Maurice McDonald were the founders of McDonald's, and they were two brothers from New Hampshire who moved to California during the Depression to figure out their lives. They worked in the movie industry, then they tried hotdog carts, then opened their first restaurant in San Bernandino, California in 1945.
The restaurant served barbecue and generally, they had a relatively big menu. When the brothers saw that their burgers were bestsellers, they realized they could automize the production of burgers, fries, and drinks if they kept the menu simple. So they closed and reopened with a smaller menu. The idea was a success, but they didn’t expand very much. They opened a couple of more restaurants in Southern California, and one or two in Arizona.
And then, in the mid-1950s, Ray Kroc, who people often think of as the founder of the franchise system, got involved. At the time, Kroc sold milkshake makers. He couldn’t understand why the McDonald’s brothers needed so many, and he went and checked out McDonald's and was like, what is this?
It really sparked his curiosity in the business, which is why he began working with the McDonald’s brothers in the 50s before purchasing the business outright in 1961. The McDonald’s brothers sold the restaurants to Kroc for $2,000,000—that's it! It's kind of bananas to think about.
Ben: It’s even more bananas when you consider that Ray Kroc also made a fortune selling rubber shoes later on.
MC: I don't think I knew that...
Ben: They’re called Crocs?
MC: Oh, I see what you did there.
Ben: So moving into the 1960s, how did the death of Martin Luther King Jr. factor into the expansion of McDonald's?
MC: So this really weird thing happens after MLK’s death.
In April 1968, MLK had been in Memphis talking about sanitation workers and economic boycott before he was killed. After he was assassinated on April 4th, McDonald's became one of many companies involved in a public racial reckoning, akin to what we experienced in 2020 in the United States. People asked: What did it mean for businesses to operate in Black communities, and what did it mean for them to give economic opportunities to Black entrepreneurs?
Conversations and studies among foundations, think tanks, and commissions revealed that economic and social problems plagued Black America. As advertising and marketing reports advised companies to target a growing market of Black consumers, all of a sudden, Black wealth building and the opening of businesses like a black-owned McDonald's became the fulfillment of MLK’s dream.
So following King's assassination, McDonald's, along with a lot of major companies, started to recruit Black franchise owners.
Ben: And this wasn’t exactly the fulfillment of MLK’s dream... as you write, “Almost immediately after he was laid to rest in his hometown of Atlanta, King’s death became inextricably tied to the advancement of capitalism, which he had believed ‘failed to meet the needs of the masses,’ and was on a par with the ‘evils of militarism and evils of racism.’”
That sounds about as evil as evils get.
MC: Yeah, but corporate America was only too happy to turn up the volume on King’s alleged support of Black capitalism as a way to suppress his far more critical and complex ideology. That’s why he almost seamlessly became tied to the advocacy for programs like Black capitalism and Black entrepreneurship.
And the federal government, under Nixon, promoted the idea of Black capitalism, too. Related, McDonald’s learned how profitable Black franchises could be. Even though the number of Black franchises was small, throughout the 60s and 70s their margins were high. They were located in the urban core; serving a consumer market that visited multiple times a day because it was a cheap, reliable food option; and many white franchisee owners had fled cities for the suburbs.
So fast food companies like McDonald’s, which had good relationships with the White House, pushed the government to provide loans to Black franchisees. And Nixon was only too happy to comply and champion Black capitalism because it meant supporting individual business owners rather than addressing the systemic socioeconomic issues that had long held Black communities back.
Ben: That reminds me of another quote of yours: “The option of bartering civil rights for economic opportunity has been presented to African Americans for centuries. In exchange for silence, Black communities could acquire a plethora of resources.”
MC: Right, and I’ll add that people across the political spectrum, many Black people included, embraced Black capitalism because they felt it was the one strategy where they would see real, tangible outcomes; that, while policy initiatives often failed, you could go to a store or franchise opening and say that is a Black-owned McDonald's.
I say to my students all the time that it's very easy for us to be dismissive or make fun of people in the past because we actually know what happened now. But from the vantage point of a Black citizen in 1968, you can see how owning a McDonald's might’ve seemed super hopeful. There was so much potential. I liken it to if Mark Zuckerberg texted me right now and said you own Meta. Do whatever you want with it. I wouldn't be able to wrap my head around that level of wealth and power and access.
Ben: Eh, when comparing you and Elon Musk...
MC: Right, maybe I couldn’t do much worse owning Twitter. But all of this is to say that the opportunity of owning a McDonald’s was unfathomable at the time. And people thought if we open this McDonald's in this community, it'll provide good jobs, we’ll make money and we can support local youth programs and athletics.
It's not that people weren’t critical of companies like McDonald’s (or other companies) suddenly offering business opportunities in Black communities. Resistance to McDonald's came from the Black Panther Party and local groups and other black businesses that were trying to compete, all of whom were very suspicious and skeptical.
But from the vantage point of that moment—when considering the cautious optimism that Black people were emerging from years of strife and grief and loss—there was a lot of hopeful speculation projection about the opportunities that McDonald’s, which was incredibly powerful, could bring to this long marginalized group of people.
Ben: Moving into the 80s, can you speak about how McDonald’s doubled down on its presence in Black communities through marketing campaigns?
MC: One of the most poignant parts of my research process was watching old McDonald's commercials all day. I went to the Paley Center For Media in New York and I was in tears. I couldn't figure out why, until I realized it was my whole childhood unfolding in front of me.
McDonald's was the leader in the type of advertising that we would call “ethnic” or “segmented” marketing: the use of Black celebrities, Black models, and Black athletes like Michael Jordan to sell the franchise. McDonald’s enlisted the services of Burrell Communications, a Chicago-based Black advertising and marketing firm, to create content for Black consumers.
Their efforts were really, really effective. Obviously, so much of advertising is about gender and class fantasies, and so whether it was first dates or family meals, McDonald's really knew how to aesthetically create a world that I think a lot of African American consumers wanted to be in.
Ben: In Franchise, you describe one commercial, whose catchphrase was “a hamburger wallet and a beefsteak appetite.”
MC: Oh my gosh. They had this crazy product called a McSteak sandwich, and it was supposed to elevate the dining experience because the market research showed that adults didn't really love McDonald's. They just tolerated it because their kids liked it and they found that African American men especially didn't like eating there.
So they tried to create this fake steak sandwich that you could order on a date, and “onion nuggets” to go along with it. But the nuggets gave people really bad gas.
Ben: So funny. This calls to mind some of McDonald's other failed food creations, like the Hula Burger.
MC: Oh, so gross. It was just a piece of grilled pineapple with cheese melted on it and put in a bun.
Ben: Maybe they should’ve tried the “McCantouloupe” and used mayo to glue french fries to a melon.
Ben: Speaking of healthy food options (or not), how do you reflect on the connection between fast food and health disparities in the US today? To cite some stats from your book, Black children are at far greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes than white children, and as of 2015, Black citizens were 1.4 times more likely than white citizens to be obese.
MC: Yeah, people often think that when you write a book about race and fast food, there’ll be a lot of finger-wagging, saying it’s better to eat kale than burgers. I'm really not interested in that. What I'm interested in is helping us understand the racialized food system that exists today.
Since the late 60s, fast-food restaurants have been hyper-concentrated in the poorest and most racially segregated places. Fast food is often identified as the culprit for high rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension among the Black population. But in the public conversation about fast food, race, and health, we have to remember the centuries-old structural indifference to providing Black communities with nutritious foods.
Sometimes, people will say to me, well, my family lived on the farm and we ate great, and then we came to the city and we ate poorly. And I'm like, that's really unlikely when we think about sharecropping and subsistence farming and the poverty that gripped people in the South. There has always been a long fight for diverse and robust and nutritionally balanced access to food for African Americans.
I don't blame McDonald's for that. But I think McDonald's is a symbol of the failures of the state to really take seriously how we're going to facilitate racial justice and all of the things that justice entails, from food to jobs to healthcare to education. When we abdicate the responsibility of the public good to corporations—when we blame Black citizens for eating at McDonald’s more than the structural lack of better food options for our communities—well, then more McDonald’s is what we get.
Ben: To quote you one last time, “Ultimately history encourages us to be more compassionate toward individuals navigating few choices, and history cautions us to be far more critical of the institutions and structures that have the power to take choices away.”
MC: Yes, and with the rise of Black Lives Matter, I think more and more people are starting to get it. They’re noticing the tendency for government and corporations to offer meaningless gestures that don’t address the origins of the rage and the disappointment that people have in a structure that has stayed unchanged for so many people.
Thankfully, too, people increasingly look at things like MLK weekend sales for sheets and guns and washing machines, and they’re like: you’ve got to be kidding. That is not the fulfillment of his dream.
Ben: A good concluding note. Professor Chatelain. Thank you so much for your scholarship and for being here. It’s been a pleasure.
MC: Thank you.
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