The 1969 MCDONALD'S BOYCOTT was a late Civil Rights era protest aiming to win Black Ownership of ‘Inner-City’ McDonald’s franchises, then a rapidly-growing business. The Boycott lasted nearly 2 months, and was an important event that encapsulated the shift from the politics of the Civil Rights Movement to the era of Black Power.

In the 1960s, McDonald’s was a rapidly growing business. The company had 500 national locations by 1965, released the Big Mac in 1968, and would introduce its iconic golden arches the next year. This financial success starkly contrasted the urban neighborhoods within which the corporation saw some of its greatest profits: poor, predominantly AFRICAN AMERICAN ghettos formed by SUCCESSIVE POST-WAR MIGRATIONS to both de jure and de facto segregated cities. Black migration prompted White flight to expanding suburbs, housing restrictions and consequential overcrowding, deterioration of urban amenities and services, and unemployment within inner-city communities. These factors created decaying neighborhoods within which crime, aimlessness and social tension were almost unavoidable. Cleveland had thus gone from being seen as a relative haven for African Americans, to a city whose working-class masses were particularly crippled by national problems; for example, the formerly White and middle-class HOUGH neighborhood was by 1966 90% Black, its single-family units subdivided into multi-family full houses, its residents heavily unemployed, and the employed making 40% less than the city’s average pay. 

The closure of supermarkets and deterioration of remaining, outsider-owned food-related services helped fuel the profitability of fast-food locations. Thus, Cleveland’s 5 ‘inner-city’ franchises generated over $2 million in revenue at a time when most Americans did not make more than $7,400 a year. One location on East 83rd street made about a third of this, $750,000, making it among the most profitable franchises in the country. Yet while McDonald’s profited off Black neighborhoods, none of these franchises was owned by an African American, and while many franchisees prided themselves on their community relations, the White owners of Cleveland’s 5 ‘inner-city restaurants’ lived elsewhere, having little interest in the communities they literally served. Driven by the belief that Black owners would (or, at least, should) promote Black interests in Black communities by redistributing their wealth and fostering ‘Black Capitalism’, African Americans in other cities had begun to pressure - and sometimes ‘win’ ownership of - local fast-food franchises. However, McDonald’s and its franchisees generally refused to sell to local owners, and the company’s 8 Black-owned restaurants nation-wide, mainly in Chicago, were generally ‘zebra businesses’ wherein White financiers made the majority profit while Black co-owners did most on-the-ground work. Increasing sentiment among politically active Black Clevelanders was that these restaurants were direct manifestations of oppressive socio-political institutions - taking a community’s money, and returning them little of value.

Tired of this situation and encouraged by the 1967 mayoral victory of African American CARL B. STOKES, 'RABBI' DAVID HILL became interested in winning Black ownership of McDonalds’ ‘inner city’ franchises. Hill, a Black Nationalist who led the HOUSE OF ISRAEL (a politico-religious organization) was joined by ERNEST HILLIARD, a self-declared prophet who claimed to have seen himself owning a franchise in a dream. The duo won Stokes’ support, but negotiations with McDonald’s quickly became strained. Hill had a reputation for entering meetings with guards, shouting down executives, and being provocative, while Hilliard, who had tried to buy a franchise, was not only rejected from this but also prohibited by existing franchises’ territorial rights from opening a new one anywhere in Cleveland’s inner city. McDonald’s additionally showed more interest in one Charles S. Johnson, an African American unaffiliated with Hill, and seen by him as a community outsider. Hilliard, who took his rejection as a racial slight, was gunned down on July 5 1969, and allegations by his wife that Hilliard’s killers were ‘White folks’ convinced Hill of a McDonaldian conspiracy. Nonetheless, now involved in four negotiations, Hill persisted, and additionally demanded that royalties from sales go to fund community organizations through OPERATION BLACK UNITY (OBU); if his demands were not met, Hill threatened to stage a boycott. Viewing Hill’s ultimatum as extortionary, McDonalds’ corporate vice president vehemently denied its demands. With that, the boycott began, and Hill was appointed OBU’s ‘chief negotiator’.

Within a few hours of the rejection, organizations linked to OBU sent ‘carloads’ of Black-jacketed, black-beret wearing demonstrators to McDonald’s locations. Sales were crippled to the extent that 4 of these were forced to shut down within hours, and one store lost 7/8ths its typical daily revenue by lunchtime. This sudden, sensational impact threw the boycott into national attention, and more established, predominantly Middle-Class Black organizations like the NAACP and NATIONAL URBAN LEAGUE lent it their support. Mayor Stokes, who had to walk a more delicate political tightrope, could not publicly take a side, but judged the protests “as American as apple pie,” and held back police interference so long as they remained peaceful. Stokes also helped Hill prepare a 5-point position paper, presented to McDonald’s when negotiations resumed on July 26:

  1. Black ownership of the 5 franchises
  2. Territorial rights for future McDonald’s in Black communities
  3. Franchise royalties to OBU that would normally go to McDonald's
  4. Irrevocable franchise rights
  5. OBU’s right to select & approve future franchise purchasers

Though McDonald’s offered cooperative decision-making on franchise purchases, it asserted there were no interested and qualified African Americans available to take a franchise, refused the demand that royalties be channeled to OBU’s community organizations, and stated they would no longer negotiate with Hill. The company soon after decided to play a waiting game. It reasoned that by the end of August, tensions between the Middle Class membership of ‘old’ Civil Rights organizations, and working-class membership of newly forming groups like OBU, would boil over and erode public will. In fact, Hill was controversial within such ‘elite’ Black organizations, as he had a criminal record for which he was proud, an aggressive demeanor, and led an unorthodox religious organization. Increasingly commonplace eccentrics like Hill appeared far from the black elite’s ideals of ‘respectability’, and the proliferating politics of Black Nationalism, which they tended to favor, remained controversial. These issues came to the fore when Dr. Kenneth Clement, a former Stokes aide and member of the NAACP, released a scathing criticism of his organization’s support for Hill: “are they so bereft of leadership that they must follow the self-styled Rabbi Hill, an uncontrite man who brags of a life of crime?” Nevertheless, when McDonald’s tried to re-open its franchises, it continued to see low sales. Indeed, the boycott was undeterred, and behind closed doors negotiations with franchisees themselves looked promising: three had cut deals to both sell their locations for $300,000 and $600,000, and donate to OBU’s communal organizations. McDonald’s corporation blocked these arrangements on August 19, even as other local restaurants like Burger Chef were agreeing to their own terms with community groups.

In September, leaders of the ‘moderate’, Middle Class Black organizations, feeling another representative might have more success, convinced Hill to step down from his position as chief negotiator. These leaders were dismayed to find McDonald’s hardening its stances in the absence of Hill, but the intra-Black conflict McDonald’s anticipated never materialized. Inner-city Black Clevelanders maintained solidarity and were taking their business to more cooperative establishments like Minnie Rhiperton’s, whose local franchises had rebranded in honor of Mahalia Jackson. This communal solidarity, however, did not reflect the political atmosphere of the rest of the city, for which the McDonald’s boycott was a contentious issue. Feeling the pressure of upcoming elections, Mayor Stokes finally decided to formally involve himself. On September 26th, he convinced Hill and the OBU to call off the boycott, stationed a policeman at every McDonald’s, and then convinced McDonald’s to sell its franchises. Two were sold immediately, a third was sold to Charles Johnson, and the last two, including the most lucrative location on East 83rd street, were sold to the HOUGH AREA DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION.

Justin Evans

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