Need something to talk about during the commercials on Super Bowl Sunday?

This may come in handy right after a Coca-Cola commercials airs: University of Virginia history professor Grace Elizabeth Hale points out in a New York Times op-ed that Coca-Cola kept their products away from African-Americans for years. While Pepsi deliberately marketed to black customers.

In the NYT op-ed titled “When Jim Crow Drank Coke,” Hale writes about Coca-Cola co-founder Asa G. Candler and why the company kept its drinks away from customers of color:

Candler began marketing the drink as “refreshing” rather than medicinal, and managed to survive the controversy. But concerns exploded again after the company pioneered its distinctive glass bottles in 1899, which moved Coke out of the segregated spaces of the soda fountain. Anyone with a nickel, black or white, could now drink the cocaine-infused beverage. Middle-class whites worried that soft drinks were contributing to what they saw as exploding cocaine use among African-Americans. Southern newspapers reported that “negro cocaine fiends” were raping white women, the police powerless to stop them. By 1903, Candler had bowed to white fears (and a wave of anti-narcotics legislation), removing the cocaine and adding more sugar and caffeine.

Coke’s recipe wasn’t the only thing influenced by white supremacy: through the 1920s and ’30s, it studiously ignored the African-American market. Promotional material appeared in segregated locations that served both races, but rarely in those that catered to African-Americans alone.

Meanwhile Pepsi, the country’s second largest soft drink company, had tried to fight Coke by selling its sweeter product in a larger bottle for the same price. Still behind in 1940, Pepsi’s liberal chief executive, Walter S. Mack, tried a new approach: he hired a team of 12 African-American men to create a “negro markets” department.

By the late 1940s, black sales representatives worked the Southern Black Belt and Northern black urban areas, black fashion models appeared in Pepsi ads in black publications, and special point-of-purchase displays appeared in stores patronized by African-Americans. The company hired Duke Ellington as a spokesman. Some employees even circulated racist public statements by Robert W. Woodruff, Coke’s president.

The campaign was so successful that many Americans began using a racial epithet to describe Pepsi. By 1950, fearing a backlash by white consumers, Pepsi had killed the program, but the image of Coke and Pepsi as “white” and “black” drinks lingered.

Grace Elizabeth Hale, is the author, most recently, of “A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love With Rebellion in Postwar America.”

You can read her full op-ed in the New York Times.

TAGS: Coca-Cola

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