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Fighting for Civil Rights at the Soda Fountain

By:  Jamal Booker Jan 14, 2013
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Men at counter
Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

This photo, taken in the 1930s, shows the neighborhood appeal of soda fountains.

In July 1958, a young lady named Carol Parks sat down at the popular soda fountain at Dockum Drugstore in Wichita, Kansas, ordered a Coke and was promptly served by a waitress. But as other customers entered and sat with Parks at the counter, the waitress withdrew from them.

The problem? The other customers were black. And like countless establishments in the United States at the time, the soda fountain had a segregation policy, meaning they did not serve blacks. The only reason Parks was served was that the waitress could not tell by her complexion that she was black.

This scenario was one of the first documented protest “sit-ins” — nonviolent protests against racial segregation laws in which blacks (often students) would enter an eatery that had a segregation policy and request service.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dedicated much of his life to campaigning for civil rights. As an African American, many of the issues Dr. King fought for hit home for me. As a historian of the soft drink industry, I am struck by the fact that so many of the peaceful sit-in demonstrations — some of which Dr. King inspired — took place at soda fountains, a core pillar of the soft drink business.

You could almost assert that the road to civil rights in the U.S. went through the soda fountain. In fact, the first night Dr. King spent in jail came after he was arrested for joining dozens of Atlanta University Center students in a coordinated sit-in and act of civil disobedience when they sought service at segregated soda fountains and restaurants in Atlanta in October 1960. It led me to ponder the reason why.

The Iconic Soda Fountain

Women at counter
© Bettmann/CORBIS

On March 26, 1960, these two women staged a sit down to protest segregation in Nashville, Tenn.

Soda fountains first appeared in the U.S. in the 1800s and reached their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. They steadily spread, along with pharmacies and drugstores, achieving great popularity at lunch counters around the country.

They were places people would gather to socialize and even have a light meal, similar to a modern-day coffee shop.

Coca-Cola was first served at a soda fountain in a pharmacy in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1886, and it wasn’t until 1928 that annual sales of bottled Coca-Cola surpassed sales of Coca-Cola at the fountain. As part of my job as an archivist at The Coca-Cola Company, I often wax nostalgic about the fabulous experiences had at soda fountains of the midtwentieth century. This always invokes mixed emotions when I consider the soda fountain experiences of Dr. King, Carol Parks and even my own parents and grandmother, who worked at a soda fountain where she could not dine as a customer.

I started to ask myself: Would I be able to eat at the very soda fountains I praise?

Coca-Cola was always enjoyed in the soda fountains in black communities, and the company began marketing to African American consumers in the 1950s. But in some parts of the country, you could be denied the right to buy a Coke (or in some cases, denied to enjoy one while seated) if you were black. This was not a policy of The Coca-Cola Company but of segregation laws in the U.S., which were generally enforced in the South.

The Start of Something Big

On Feb. 1, 1960, four North Carolina Agricultural & Technical University freshmen sat down at a Woolworth’s soda fountain in Greensboro, North Carolina, for the most famous civil rights sit-in demonstration in U.S. history. It is also regarded as the spark that spread to other lunch counters throughout the country.

Several months later, on October 19, 1960, Dr. King attended another famous sit-in. So did Marilyn Pryce Hoytt, who is listed as “unidentified woman” in this photo of Dr. King walking to a waiting car to be taken to the police station. The photo captures Hoytt immediately after she participated in the coordinated soda fountain sit-in and act of civil disobedience alongside Dr. King at the Magnolia Tea Room restaurant at Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta. The store was progressive in its own right, as black families were allowed to purchase store goods on credit just as white families could — but not in the store’s segregated diners. In fact, Dr. King said that in 1959, his family spent $4,500 at the store, adding, “We are welcome at all counters other than the lunch counters.”

As for Hoytt, she grew up drinking and loving Coca-Cola at the soda fountain. In a conversation with her, she remarked that as a teenager in Tuskegee, Alabama, “It was exciting to be able to sit and enjoy a Coca-Cola and a hot dog” at the local soda fountain and drugstore in her neighborhood. However, across town, another drugstore had a separate window where blacks could place orders. Hoytt’s parents, who participated in the Montgomery, Alabama, segregated-bus boycotts, would not allow her to patronize the segregated soda fountains because they disagreed with the policy.

Woolworths
Clark County Historical Society, Springfield, Ohio

When civil rights activist Marilyn Pryce Hoytt was young, her grandmother took her to visit the integrated soda fountain at this F.W. Woolworth store in Springfield, Ohio to show her that "she was as equal as anyone else."

Hoytt, who was among the first of the 52 arrested at the Rich’s sit-in, was a student at Spelman College in Atlanta at the time. When she reflects on the photo of her, Dr. King and Atlanta University Center student integration leader Lonnie King (no relation), the sharp look of pride on her face still strikes her.

Perhaps the expression is rooted in another soda fountain custom from her youth. Each summer, when Hoytt and her sister visited their grandparents in Springfield, Ohio, the first thing their grandmother did was take them to the integrated soda fountain at Woolworth’s and sit at the counter. She had them look around at both the black and white patrons to help them understand that they were as equal as anyone else, “in hopes that we would carry that attitude back to the South,” she says.

Soda Fountains as Agents of Change

Why did Dr. King and others in the civil rights movement focus on soda fountains? First, because of their prominence as community institutions (the targets selected were primarily those considered flagships of the community in which they were located). The other factor was economics. The Atlanta Journal reported that as quickly as Hoytt, Dr. King and the other students got in line or took seats at the food counters, “service was stopped, lights went off, and chains and ‘closed’ signs went up.”

In a video taken just after his arrest, Dr. King describes sit-ins as a way to bring the issue of racial segregation to the forefront and to bring about meaningful progress. The economic factor certainly drew attention to the issue, forcing people to confront it. And just as the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s outlawing of Alabama bus segregation laws in 1956, the soda fountain sit-ins proved to be an agent of change. Lunch counters in the city of Atlanta were desegregated in 1961 — one year after the peaceful sit-in demonstrations.

Changing America for Good

When Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, it was a sign that his local efforts to confront injustice had inspired an international audience. Coca-Cola’s chief, Robert W. Woodruff, supported a local celebration dinner in honor of Dr. King. Initially, none of the city's top business leadership accepted the invitation, until Woodruff strongly encouraged all of them to accept the invite. Ultimately, more than 100 top businessmen attended.

That same year, Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act, eliminating legalized racial segregation. Among other things, the legislation made it illegal to discriminate against blacks or other minorities in public accommodations.

Under inequity, everybody loses. When Dr. King showed up at Rich’s soda fountain at 11 a.m. with nine others and asked for service, the lunch counter was closed as soon as they appeared. By my estimation, businesses lost money, and servers and would-be customers lost an opportunity to connect. Society, one could argue, lost even more. Even if a Coca-Cola had been ordered at the time, it would have lost the opportunity to do what it does best — refresh and uplift.

Among many other places, the path to civil rights touched the soda fountain, changing America for good in the process. How can we put in perspective what it means today to be able to go anywhere, order a Coca-Cola and receive one? I salute Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Marilyn Pryce Hoytt and the innumerable leaders who fought for civil rights — sometimes using soda fountains in the process — to overcome the inertia of injustice.


Jamal Booker is an archivist in the Coca-Cola Heritage Communications Department.