Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously declared, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” While King’s legacy testifies that he lived by these words, the beverage most literally linked with this icon is Coca-Cola. Largely due to Atlanta, a shared home city, the civil right legend and the massive corporate conglomerate crossed paths at several pivotal moments of his inspirational life.
Segregation at the Soda Fountain
From the start, cold drinks played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement. Soda fountains provided both an informal gathering spot for communities and served as a massive revenue driver for large corporations including soda suppliers like Coke. So, the venues were a natural target to fight segregation through a series of sit-ins. To this day, 1950’s style fountains remain emblematic of both the movement and the cola.
The Coca-Cola corporation still maintains an official stance of neutrality regarding their role. The company line insists that they simply sold their drinks to vendors and had no say in any policies enacted by a vendor after said sale. King, on the other hand, saw no room for neutrality when faced with a clear wrong.
On October 19, 1960 Dr. King was arrested after participating in one such sit-in at the Magnolia Tea Room at Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta. “I took part in the lunch counter sit-ins at Rich’s department store as a follower, not a leader. I did not initiate the thing,” King explained in an interview for the Kennedy Library. “It came into being with the students discussing the issues involved. They called me and asked me to join in. They wanted me to he in it. and I felt a moral obligation to be in it with them.”
Although the students were released within a week, a Georgia judge used a minor traffic violation to keep King in custody, sentencing him to six months of hard labor in Reidsville Prison. Ultimately, intervention by Robert Kennedy at the behest of his brother, then-candidate John F. Kennedy led to the activist’s release. However, King understood the election realities involved in the intervention, writing, “So I think that he did something that expressed deep moral concern, but at the same time it was politically sound.”
By 1964, the leader’s work in the movement earned him a Nobel Peace Prize. Atlanta decided to honor their native son with a gala dinner, but due to racism, the city’s elites refused to buy tickets. Coca-Cola, the city’s largest corporation, landed on the right side of history this time.
The dinner’s initial lack of support, galvanized by the SCLC’s ongoing boycott of Scripto pens, became national news. The New York Times even devoted several articles to the issue.
The organizing committee comprised of ATL Mayor Ivan Allen, the Most Rev. Paul J. Hallinan, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Atlanta, Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, Morehouse College President Benjamin E. Mays, and Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill reached out to former Coke president Robert Woodruff. The request was answered with silence, but after the media coverage increased, the group sent a second plea to Woodruff. This time, Woodruff responded, putting them in contact with successor at Coke, J. Paul Austin.
“J. Paul Austin was from LaGrange, Ga., but he had been in South Africa for the last 14 years before coming back to Coca-Cola,” former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, another civil rights icon, noted during an NPR interview. “He had seen what apartheid had done to the South African economy. So he was very strong on Atlanta not giving in to this kind of pettiness and racism.”
Allen and Austin gathered the town’s business brahmins for a meeting at the Piedmont Driving Club. Austin addressed the crowd, issuing a scathing ultimatum: support this gala or Coke is moving. “It is embarrassing for Coca-Cola to be located in a city that refuses to honor its Nobel Prize winner,” he wrote. “We are an international business. The Coca-Cola Company does not need Atlanta. You all need to decide whether Atlanta needs the Coca-Cola Company.”
The message was received loud and clear. Tickets to King’s dinner quickly sold out within two hours. Contemporary accounts described the event, itself, as a success. “It was a great and delicate moment,” Samuel DuBois Cook, a classmate of King’s, who attended the dinner told the AJC. “Because of the race issue, it could have been very explosive… It was a turning point, without question.”
‘I’ve been to the mountaintop’
Alas, the goodwill between the global corporation and the civil rights leader did not last long. Four years later, Coke landed on King’s boycott list. “In Atlanta we engaged in protests and actions against Coca-Cola which had considerable business support from the black community,” Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery told BBC4’s Mark Thomas. “They did not hire blacks in important, gainful positions, The people in charge of the transactions were always white. The people who did the heavy work were always black; their income was considerably lower.”
On April 3, 1968, the day before King’s assassination, he delivered his renowned “I have been to the mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis, TN. The final oration included a push against the beverage giant. “We are asking you tonight (Amen) to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis,” declared King.
The next night, King was killed, but the struggle continued. Eventually, Coke changed their policies and the SCLC ended their boycott.
Over the ensuing time, Coca-Cola garnered some serious criticism for their human rights records as well as some instances of praise. However, the company has not forgotten their once close connections to the global movement that began locally. Coke annually donates to the NAACP and SCLC. In June 2014, Atlanta opened the Center for Civil and Human Rights, which houses many of King’s papers; the museum is located on land donated by Coke.