Coca-Cola, Its Egregious History and Intersection with the Martin Luther King Holiday..continued from 2/03/22

Coke and Martin Luther King 

Fast forward now to 1964 and Atlanta native Martin Luther King. It is true that Coca-Cola’s Robert Woodruff was instrumental in making sure Atlanta honored Dr. King when, in 1964, he became the first and only Atlanta citizen to be honored with the Nobel Peace Prize.

“There was some division in the community whether he (King) should be honored. Here again, Mr. Woodruff, through former (Atlanta) Mayor Hartsfield, said: ‘Don’t be absurd; of course he was to be honored,’ and he was.”

The night of the dinner, King delivered to a standing-room only, integrated audience what would become one of his most famous quotes: “If people of good will of the white South fail to act now, history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and then the violent actions of the bad people but the appalling silence of and indifference of the good people.” (“Inside Coca-Cola: A CEO’s Life Story of Building the World’s Most Popular Brand”, 2012, Neville Isdell and David Beasley)

But King was never one to be compromised. Regardless of whatever Coca-Cola had done in the past, in his famous last speech, on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, known as the ‘Mountaintop Speech’, King encouraged those in Memphis to boycott Coca-Cola because of its discriminatory employment practices (as in, less salary for blacks, fewer advancements compared to whites, etc.). Other corporations were also mentioned as violators of “just” employment practices. The next day after this speech, King was assassinated.

King in Memphis – 1968 

His last crusade was to help the Sanitation men. (Bettmann Archive)

It is rather interesting to note that when President Lyndon Johnson was notified about the King assassination on April 4, 1968, he was meeting in the White House with Coke president Robert Woodruff and former Georgia Governor Carl Sanders. Johnson did on occasion talk with Woodruff, either in person or on the phone.

Ever since King made his statement in 1968 about Coke, and regardless of what the company has given to the Black community in Atlanta, it has been a never-ending discriminator of its Black employees. The 1999 discrimination lawsuit against Coke and the ultimate settlement was significant.

In the largest settlement ever, at the time, in a racial discrimination case, The Coca-Cola Company agreed in November 2000 to pay more than $156 million to resolve a federal lawsuit brought by black employees.

The settlement also mandated that the company make sweeping changes, costing an additional $36 million, and grants broad monitoring powers to a panel of outsiders – an unusual concession in employment discrimination cases.

The lawsuit, filed in April 1999, accused Coke of erecting a corporate hierarchy in which black employees were clustered at the bottom of the pay scale, averaging $26,000 a year less than white workers. As redress, the settlement provides as many as 2,000 current and former black salaried employees with an average of $40,000 in cash, while the four plaintiffs whose names are on the lawsuit will receive up to $300,000 apiece.

“There’s going to be fundamental change at The Coca-Cola Company,” said Kimberly Gray Orton, a plaintiff who worked for Coca-Cola for 13 years and who says that she made less than the white workers she supervised. “A lot like a rock in a pond, there are going to be ripples”. (NY Times: Coca-Cola Settles Racial Bias Case” Greg Winter, November 17, 2000)

Coke in South Africa

Also related to the leadership in the Black community, vis-a-vis The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, was the Quaker’s American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) Atlanta office and its “International Boycott Against Coke” because of Coke’s relentless support of apartheid in South Africa. In that Coke had compromised many in the Black community in Atlanta with a few handouts here and there it was difficult to garner their support for the boycott. Nevertheless, the boycott was a force to be reckoned with throughout the country.

It was from the AFSC office that Tandi Gcabashe, as director of the Southern Africa Peace Education Project, organized the anti-apartheid work and campaigns in the South primarily in the 1980s and 1990s. Gcabashe is the daughter of Chief Albert Luthuli who was a former president of the ANC and the first African Nobel Peace Prize winner (1960). Luthuli was killed mysteriously in 1967 resulting in Gcabashe leaving South Africa in the early 1970’s and moving to Atlanta, Georgia.

Tandi Gcabashe – Anti-Apartheid leader in Atlanta in 1980/1990s

Below please see the poster that emphasizes the role of Coke’s taxes in South Africa, as in to pay the military to oppress South African Southern Africa Liberation Committee East Lansing, Michigan, United States 1985

(African Activist Archive)

About the Coke Boycott from the ‘African Activist Archive’

Over the last few years, faced with pressure to divest from activists in South Africa and in the US, Coca-Cola has begun donating small amounts of money to educational and humanitarian programs for blacks. Company officials have also begun speaking out against the most horrendous aspects of apartheid. But there is another reality to Coca-Cola’s operations in South Africa: a reality determined by the company’s 90% share of the soft drink market and the hundreds of millions of dollars in sales revenues that the company earns each year off the apartheid system. (1983 sales, according to the Investor Responsibility Research Center, accounted for 5% of the parent company’s worldwide sales.) (“Coca Cola in South Africa” – AFSC – African Activist Archive Project )

When the Coca-Cola Company announced it was pulling out of South Africa in September 1986, it unveiled a unique addition to the attempts by U.S. companies to pacify opponents of apartheid. A number of companies, including Coca-Cola, have ended direct investment in South Africa while retaining business ties with apartheid. But Coca-Cola went one step further by selling some of its assets to the Black business community. Despite the emotional visions of Affirmative Action that this may evoke, the Coca-Cola plan is nothing more than a well advertised deception. Most importantly, Coca-Cola’s continuing involvement is not assisting Blacks in their struggle, but in actuality is contradicting one of the basic calls articulated by South Africa’s oppressed majority – the complete economic isolation of the apartheid regime.

(Coke) Workers were also angry that their pension funds have been invested in Armscor; the South African state owned and operated arms company. The workers clearly stated, “we refuse to pay for the bullets that kill our children in the townships.” Members of the Food and Allied Workers Union and the Food and Beverage Workers Union warned Black business organizations against buying or helping Black businessmen buy Coca-Cola and charged them with complicity in the continued oppression and exploitation of South Africa’s disenfranchised majority population. (“Coca Cola in South Africa” – ACOA – African Activist Archive Project)

Comparing Coke in Germany to South Africa

Coke, famously, never totally divested from South Africa. All along, its products were sold at huge profits and it essentially provided support to the apartheid regime through its affiliate’s taxes. It was somewhat like Coke’s infamous role in the Nazi regime during WWII. Max Keith was head of Coke in Germany at the time. Ironically, it seems that Coca-Cola survived and prospered in Germany by disassociating itself from its American roots. While at home Coca-Cola was the all-American drink, Keith’s strategy in Germany before and during WWII was to market Coke as a German drink, appealing to industrial workers to “Mach doch mal Pause” (Come on, take a break). (“Nazi Germany and Coca-Cola: An Unholy Alliance”  Killer Coke)

First US – King Holiday Celebration in 1986

& Anti-Apartheid Conference

In 1986, the King Holiday was launched throughout the United States. At the time, I was directing the non-violent program for Coretta Scott King at the King Center in Atlanta. As mentioned above, Mrs. King asked me to organize the “International Anti-Apartheid Conference” as part of the first King Week celebration. The program was approved by Mrs. King and included anti-apartheid leaders from throughout the country, as well as African National Congress (ANC) leader Johnny Makhathini, head of the ANC’s Department of International Affairs who was in New York at the time.

Shortly before the event was to take place, Christine Farris (Martin Luther King’s sister) and Al Davis, one of Coca-Cola’s Vice Presidents, called me into Mrs. Farris’ office. They told me I needed to stop working on the anti-apartheid conference because I had invited the African National Conference to the event. Apparently, it had something to do with the ANC’s armed struggle – Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) – within the ANC that they said was in opposition to Kingian non-violence. Suffice it to say, this is an on-going debate then and now regarding whether King’s philosophy of nonviolence was strategic (depending on the event) or philosophical (as a way of life). But I knew you could not hold a legitimate anti-apartheid conference without the ANC representation as the ANC was the leader of the movement.

Ironically, while the conference was attended by ANC local Atlanta leaders and others from New York, ANC leader Johnny Makhathini was not able to attend due to airplane issues, the details of which have never been adequately ascertained .

I thought then and now that the real reason for the request not to have the ANC at the conference was because of the South African complaints, by anti-apartheid activists, that Coke had not completely disinvested from South Africa.

Nevertheless, I was told by some leaders around Mrs. King not to pay any attention to this request by Mrs.Farris and Al Davis and to proceed with the planning, which is what I did. I was ultimately complimented by Jesse Hill, the chair of the King Center Board of Directors, who attended the conference along with many others. The church was, in fact, filled with activists and those concerned about the apartheid system.

Below please see announcement from the ‘Coke Campaign’ of the ‘Georgia Coalition for Divestment in South Africa’ that, at the time of the first King Holiday celebration in January of 1986, Coke had not divested from South Africa.

Mandela Visiting Atlanta in 1990

Nelson Mandela and Coretta Scott King in Atlanta in 1990

When Mandela visited Atlanta in 1990, after his release from prison in South Africa, he spoke at the Georgia Tech University football field close to the headquarters of Coke in Atlanta. The stadium is famous for being an advertising platform for Coke with signs everywhere. Activists in Atlanta were successful in covering all of the huge Coke signs at the stadium when Mandela addressed the immense audience. Mandela was helpful in these initiatives and, according to Tandi Gcabashe, while in the states he asked that one of the hotels he was in to remove all Coke vending machines. Mandela was also to be transported around the U.S. by Coca-Cola planes, but he refused to do so.

When Mandela died in 2013 there was a service at the King Chapel at Morehouse University that included Angela D. Harrell, Director and Coca Cola Ambassador for Public Affairs and Communications. While respectful of Mandela, of course, she spoke erroneously about the role of Coca-Cola during the anti-apartheid movement stating that Coca-Cola had divested from South Africa in 1986 and returned in 1994 after the election of Mandela. Many of us attending were rather stunned by this message, yet we should have expected this distortion from the Coke representative. There were also all kinds of Coke drinks available after the service.

Coke in the Philippines

Coke sign at Military check point in the Philippines (1989) (Photo: Heather Gray)

(The Philippines) is the main “US imperial power [base] in Southeast Asia,” according to Roland G. Simbulan of the University of the Philippines.[5] Credible allegations exist revealing that the CIA has operated in support of the pro-American for big businesses such as Coca-Cola which is called Crony capitalism oligarchy in the Philippines, and uses its resources to advance the interests of American corporations such as Ford, Nike,  and Coca-Cola. The CIA and the United States have consistently played a role in political and economic life of the Philippines. The Filipino counterpart to the CIA is the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA), with which it cooperates. (Wikipedia)

In 1989, three years after the first King Holiday, I visited the Philippines for a number of months. While there I became alarmed at the proliferation of Coke signs everywhere in towns and villages. Like most capitalist entities, Coke will take advantage of every opportunity to stretch the limit of the possibilities of promotion anywhere and everywhere and clutter the landscape.

There were times I was in the rural areas of surrounding islands and going through military check points only to find Coca-Cola signs there as well. I asked Filipino activists about this and was told that Coke was giving money to the military. This made sense, of course.

Filipino consumer advocates told me they needed to educate mothers not to give Coke to their babies. They said, for one, that Coke is not good for brain development. I was saddened to hear this, assuming that mothers were giving their babies Coke rather than milk. (As it turns out, and not surprisingly, some U.S. mothers are doing the same.) The assumption is, with so many signs everywhere, some would think the drink had merit. This is the ultimate goal of advertising, it appears, even and probably especially in countries lacking consumer education to protect consumers and their family from unhealthy products.

In 1989, there was excessive violence in the Philippines, largely thanks to U.S. interference. Earlier in the 1980’s retired U.S. General John Singlaub, President of the World Anti-Communist League, had held a meeting in Singapore with high-ranking members of the U.S. military to launch an intensive anti-communist campaign in the Philippines. It was meant to dampen the growing criticism of the Military Bases Agreement (MBA) the U.S. had established with the Philippines after WWII. The intent was largely to attack labor leaders, civic activists and organizers of all sorts. Assassinations were rampant in the Philippines while I was there. It appeared that anyone who was criticizing the government or helping the poor was considered a communist – it was the typical Cold War philosophy.

In 1989, Coca-Cola in the Philippines was headed by an Australian. At one point I talked with a Coca-Cola employee who told me that Coke didn’t want an “American face” as head of Coke in the Philippines at the time. I, of course, wanted to know why that was the case. I pursued this discussion further and asked if Coke was giving money to the Philippine military. I was suddenly yelled at and called a communist – the discussion ended abruptly.


I find it hard to say anything positive about Coke, but apparently it is good for cleaning toilets. (see “Coke Can Clean Your Toilet in a Pinch”, 2009) But remember, if you clean your toilet with Coke, know what it took to create that one can/bottle of Coke from the following scenario in India:

The Coca-Cola Company proudly boasts that it has a water use ratio of 2.7 to 1. That is, for every 2.7 liters of water (freshwater) it takes from the earth, it produces 1 liter of product. What happens to the remaining 1.7 liters (or 63%) of the water? It is used to clean bottles and machinery, and is discarded as wastewater….Coca-Cola’s water use ratio in India is 4 to 1 – that is, 75% of the freshwater it extracts is turned into wastewater. The company has indiscriminately discharged its wastewater into the surrounding fields, severely polluting the scarce remaining groundwater as well as soil…Thousands of farmers across India are struggling to make a living because of crop failure as a result of the water shortages created by The Coca-Cola Company. (“Coca-Cola and Water – An Unsustainable Relationship”, 2008, Indian Resource Center)

Coke likely ranks as the epitome of the capitalist American corporate entity with all its greed, arrogance, hypocrisy, violence, worker and environmental abuse rolled into one. In other words, it employs typical capitalist behavior. Toward the end of his life, renowned scholar and activist W.E. B. DuBois realized that capitalism could not be reformed. Indeed!

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