Coca-Cola, Its Egregious History d Intersection with the Martin Luther King Holiday

By Heather Gray/Justice Initiative

This article is primarily about The Coca-Cola Company’s shameful world-wide abuse of the environment, employees of color and whatever it chooses to do for profit. Reference is made in the article about my experience with Coke in Atlanta, Georgia; in my anti-apartheid activism regarding South Africa; Coke in Germany during the Nazi period; and my experience vis-a-vis Coke in the Philippines.

In 1986, I was working at the King Center in Atlanta as the director of the non-violent program and served under the leadership of Coretta Scott King. For the first King Week celebration in 1986, Mrs. King asked me to organize an ‘International Anti-Apartheid Conference’ that would take place at the King family church – Ebenezer Baptist – which is located next to the King Center. Mrs. King asked me to do this as she knew that I was deeply involved in the anti-apartheid movement.

But then, suddenly, in the midst of the plans for the King Week anti-apartheid event, there was an intersection between Martin Luther King and his non-violent philosophy, anti-apartheid activism, and the Coca-Cola Company headquartered in Atlanta. In this article I share what this ‘intersection’ was about.

The purpose of this article about Coca-Cola is to share an assortment of some of my personal experiences with The Coca Cola corporation in the past few decades in reference to Atlanta, Georgia in the United States, South Africa and the Philippines. While I have been to South Africa – as in to observe the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994 – and to the Philippines as well, my primary experience with Coke vis-a-vis anti-apartheid issues was in Atlanta, Georgia – the home of Coca-Cola.

For a comprehensive list of criticisms against The Coca-Cola Company throughout the world please go to: Killer Coke.

It seems, however, wherever I go in the world and whatever I do, for some reason I am confronted with the Coca-Cola Company and its oppressive arrogant behavior. 

The Coca-Cola Company is, of course, a capitalist company meaning that its goal is to make money virtually any way possible. It’s good at this. Coca-Cola’s Net Worth in 2021 was $243 Billion in 2021. (CA Knowledge)

Since its founding in the late 1800’s, the Coca Cola Company is now known to have created the most recognized product in the world. Its goal of making money is accomplished regardless of the consequences be it environmental degradation, pollution, abuse of and destabilizing water use, worker assassinations, discrimination in the work place, or the health of individuals drinking its product, to name but a few. Promoting a product that requires purchase by huge numbers of individuals in order to make a profit necessitates deliberate efforts at creating a positive public image. It’s good at that also but it is simultaneously considered by some as one of the most evil corporations in the world – a designation that suits it well.

Living in Atlanta, the home of Coca-Cola, the time has come for me to begin writing about the company, as Alex Cockburn had wanted.

First, here are photos and brief descriptions of Asa Candler, the founder of Coca-Cola, James Pemberton, who created the drink, followed by Charles Pemberton, the son of James Pemberton.

Asa G. Candler (1851-1929) was the founder of “The Coca-Cola Company” in 1892. An Atlanta, Georgia resident, he managed to purchase the rights to use the formula, but not the name “Coca-Cola”. So, at first, the drink by Candler was called “Yum Yum” and “Koke”. He proceeded from there and ultimately acquired the legal access to the name ‘Coca-Cola’.
John Pemberton, (1831-1888) a pharmacist from Georgia, was the creator of the Coca-Cola formula. He died in 1888. And yes, the original formula contained cocaine. Pemberton was wounded in the Civil War, as part of Confederate Army, and like many others became addicted to morphine while trying to relieve the pain. He created this non-alcoholic drink to help diminish the pain and his addiction. Pemberton gave his son Charles, the right to the name “Coca-Cola”.
Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia andExperiencing the Coke Culture
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, the home of Coca-Cola no less. To begin this saga, I need to say that I went to Druid Hills High School in the Druid Hills area that borders Emory University where I also started my university career and that has historical Coca-Cola connections.

The Candler family’s involvement in the Druid Hills area was profound in the early 1900’s and resonated for subsequent decades. It’s as if the aura of Candler was everywhere. And yes, Candler was the critical initiator and funder of the creation of Emory University.
In 1914, after a long struggle between the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust and the bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church South over control of the university, the Board of Trust won a decision in the Tennessee State Supreme Court. The church subsequently severed its relationship with the university and forged plans to create a new Methodist university in the Southeast with a school of theology. The General Conference decided to charter one university east of the Mississippi River, and one to the river’s west. (Southern Methodist University)
It was Asa Griggs Candler, the founder of The Coca-Cola Company and brother to former Emory President Warren Candler, who persuaded the church to build the new university in DeKalb County, and to make Emory the nucleus. He endowed the school with one million dollars and a gift of 75 acres (304,000 m²) of land in the newly emerging Druid Hills community, located northeast of downtown Atlanta in DeKalb County. The campus is less than a mile from the current Atlanta city limits. For Asa’s generosity, the campus library at the east end of the quadrangle—recently restored to its original 1920s appearance—was named after him. (Wikipedia)
Candler’s philosophy was seemingly a combination of “trickle down” economics and of individuals simply being blessed by God for their wealth. It was most definitely not “collective” in motive or philosophy. But he did have a mission, albeit what is seemingly an elite one. In her book “God’s Capitalist: Asa Candler of Coca-Cola” (2002), Kathryn Kemp explains Candler’s perspective in the review below:
(The book is) an examination of an entrepreneur who saw his personal wealth as a divine trust. Kathryn W. Kemp (asks) ‘Can a rich man enter heaven?’ Asa Candler, who was a very rich man, thought so. He accepted the principle of Christian stewardship, which holds that God gives wealth to individuals in order to promote His kingdom on earth. Candler thus felt obligated to protect and build the fortune that he held as a sacred trust, and to use it to carry out God’s purposes in the world. “God’s Capitalist: Asa Candler of Coca-Cola” is an examination of the life of an entrepreneur who saw his personal wealth as a divine trust to be used to the benefit of humanity…. At the end of his life, he had given away his entire fortune. Despite his wealth and reputation, he was opposed by those who did not share his point of view, which was primarily shaped by his religion and his social position among Atlanta’s elite. (Mercer University)
As you might assume correctly, Emory University has the “Candler Theological Center“. Not wanting to disparage Candler’s religious faith, it has not been uncommon for white Southern elite historically to use religion as a way to both justify and assuage their guilt for white southern abuse of power and white supremacy overall. To put this in context, in the early 1900’s the white South was launching its oppressive Jim Crow laws and in 1906 the infamous Atlanta Race Riots occurred as Blacks started moving into Atlanta from rural areas. Please see below the cover of the 2009 book by Rebecca Burns entitled: ‘Rage in the Gate City: The Story of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot“.
Attending High School in Atlanta andSurrounded by the Candler & Coke Influence
Druid Hills High School (founded in 1919)
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, at Druid Hill High School, I would often look out my classroom window across the football field to the railroad tracks and then to the estate on the “other side of the tracks”. The estate was the property of Walter T. Candler, the third son of Asa Candler. Walter Candler purchased this 185-acre property in 1925 that he called the Lullwater Farms and built his sizable house on the property in 1926. I would often see cows grazing on the Candler property-owned field by the railroad tracks. In 1958 Candler sold the property to Emory University. Since 1963, the Emory president, whoever that might be at the time, has lived in the Lullwater House.
Walter Candler’s ‘Lullwater House’ on Lullwater Farms in Atlanta where
Emory University President’s now live. The house was built in 1935.
Throughout the Druid Hills neighborhood and close to the high school there are constant reminders of Asa Candler and his four children. They all had mansions in the area that have, thankfully, now been converted into public institutions of some sort, or owned by Emory University, and one is now a condominium community attached to the mansion that some say is haunted (Asa Candler’s son-in-law, Henry Heinz, was murdered on the property in 1943).
Robert Woodruff (1889-1985) became the president of Coca-Cola in 1923 and remained in that position until 1954. He stayed on the Coca-Cola board of directors, however, until 1984. His name is everywhere in Atlanta from parks, university libraries, to a whole assortment of buildings. Woodruff continued the Coca-Cola tradition of supporting the “white” Emory University but also the “black” Atlanta University Center. He was in no way as generous to Atlanta University as with Emory. The center of the city has the “Woodruff Park” which is now named, by activists, as the Troy Davis Park. Troy Davis – a black male – who was, what many considered, illegally executed by the State of Georgia in 2011.
Coke and Martin Luther King
To Be Continued 2/10/22

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