Taylor Dillard, like most of the people in the segregated South during the Civil Rights era, just wanted to be treated fairly. And that meant having the opportunity to work for a living.
“There wasn’t much work for black people,” Dillard, 67, recalls. “We did the hard stuff, like digging ditches.”
In Dillard’s small town of Greenwood, Miss., opportunities were so few and far between, and voter suppression so prevalent, that the Greenwood Movement became a flashpoint in the Civil Rights movement, with Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael and others traveling to the area to help the cause.
Beginning in 1967, the town's black residents effectively boycotted all white-owned businesses with the goal of breaking down the first ugly layers of segregation by earning jobs. And Dillard, just a teenager, became an unwitting leader in the movement.
In 1969, Dillard was hired by Harrison Curtis, the general manager of what was then Coca-Cola Bottling Works of Greenwood as its first African-American salesman. It was a major step since only one or two black employees had been hired since the boycott began.
“Mr. Curtis put me to work, and that’s when everyone started breaking through,” Dillard said. “It was really exciting to see.”
In the ensuing five decades, Dillard has been a fixture in Greenwood and at Coca-Cola, staying with the bottler through a variety of owners and rising through to the ranks to his current position, which he has held for the last 16 years, as a route processor and administrator with the Clark Beverage Group.
“Mr. Dillard is such an inspiration to everyone at Clark Beverage Group in Greenwood, and to former employees and counterparts from all over the Coca-Cola system,” said Meagan Counts, sales branch manager at Clark Beverage. “He exemplifies loyalty, integrity and a strong work ethic that each and every one of us should strive for daily in our careers.”
Just because Dillard helped break through the town’s hiring blockade didn’t mean all his problems were solved. He had to fight through racism and earn the trust of the people on his route every day.
“Most of the customers would not accept me at first,” he said. “There was a guy, his bill was $3.78, and he gave me a $10. I gave him $6.22 back, and later he came back and said, ‘I gave you a $20.’"
He continued, "It hurt me real bad, but I gave him a $10 just to get along. Two hours later, he pulled behind the truck and said, ‘I’m so sorry. My wife jumped all over me. How come you gave me the $10?’
“I told him, ‘I’m so proud of my job, I would have given you $40 just to keep it.’ From that day forward, that man, who had an auto shop, wouldn’t let me pay. He felt like he owed me something. I gained a good friend. I got along with people. That was the main thing.”
As time went on, Dillard became a valuable part of Greenwood’s bottling operation and community. The bottling operation changed hands five times, but Dillard remained.
“Things got better each time we were sold,” he said. “All of the owners have been good. With Clark, I’ve never seen the fleet look as it good now. They really know the business.”
And the people at Clark understand that Dillard is a valuable resource in understanding the town both past and present.
“He is like a walking history book around here,” Counts said. “I can ask him any question about the facility, former employees names, or just any question imaginable about Coca-Cola in Greenwood, and he can answer! It’s pretty impressive, if you ask me. He keeps a positive attitude and keeps us all together like family.”
Dillard served on the Greenwood city council for four years, and raised nine children, all of whom, he notes, have a college education. He might not see himself as a pioneer, but Dillard’s achievements helped play a role in changing thoughts and minds.
“I think back and thank God for letting me work long enough to get my children an education,” he said. “Coca-Cola helped my whole family make it. Most of all, I’m thankful to still be here and getting up and coming to work."
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