The demise of the 1979 strike/boycott at Church’s ChickenThe following historical article is the second in a two-part series focusing on labor unrest at Church’s Fried Chicken stores in Atlanta during the 1970s. The first installment told the story of a 24-day strike and boycott that shut down the majority of Atlanta-area Church’s locations in 1972. This latter installment recounts two additional bouts of labor unrest at Atlanta Church’s stores that took place in 1977 and 1979. In addition, this piece also details a subsequent campaign launched by Church’s in the mid-1980s in an effort to rid itself of the then widespread reputation for racism and racial insensitivity that the company had acquired within the Black community. –Ben S, Atlanta
Changes at Church’s
One of the most significant effects of the 1972 strike/boycott at Church’s Fried Chicken was the movement’s impact on racial dynamics within the company. Most notably, the strike compelled Church’s to accelerate its integration of management. In the years following 1972, the company began promoting increased numbers of Blacks to store manager positions. What’s more, in 1973, the company elected the first Black member to its board of directors. Alongside these developments, the company launched a minor public relations campaign aimed at rehabilitating its image in the Black community. In a 1973 advertisement published in the Atlanta Daily World, Church’s touted itself as a paragon of opportunity for aspiring, hard-working Blacks. As the ad put it, “Church’s Fried Chicken offers the little man the opportunity to learn the necessary skills in operating a fast food outlet.” In order to further bolster its image and cultivate Black support, the company began making minor donations to local Civil Rights groups, including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Foundation. It also moved to sponsor several little league teams in Black neighborhoods. 
While these changes undoubtedly made work less degrading for Black Church’s workers, they did not abolish the system of oppression and exploitation at the heart of the company’s business model. Indeed, despite offering increased upward mobility for a small fraction of its Black workforce, Church’s continued to depend on the hyper-exploitation of Black wage workers in order generate profits. On this basis, Church’s was soon compelled, once again, to begin ratcheting up the rate of exploitation leveled against workers. This proved to be particularly difficult for the company in the wake of the 1972 strike/boycott, which had led to a dramatic boost in collective confidence and expectations on the part of Church’s workers. This outlook was bolstered by workers’ awareness that they could, if necessary, petition Hosea Williams for further organizational assistance. Ultimately, the contradictions between these two dynamics – the company’s profit needs and the expectations of workers – led to two subsequent bouts of unrest at Church’s stores in Atlanta before the end of the decade.
The first such incident came in 1977, when a group of Church’s workers filed charges against the company with the Metro Atlanta SCLC and threatened to strike. As recounted in a flyer released two years later, Church’s management responded to the 1977 strike threat by entering into negotiations and signing an agreement that promised a number of significant concessions to workers. For their part of the bargain, Church’s workers agreed to rescind their strike threat and drop their association with the SCLC. Ultimately, the key problem of the 1977 agreement stemmed from the fact that workers lacked the organizational means – namely, a union – to ensure that the company made good on its promises. This allowed upper management, almost immediately, to renege on the terms of the agreement. Among other unfulfilled vows, the company failed to create a formal grievance procedure. Thus, Church’s workers were left, once again, without any avenue to contest unjust firings or acts of racial discrimination by superiors. 
The failure of management to make good on the terms of the 1977 agreement laid the basis for a resurgence of struggle in 1979. As Hosea Williams later summarized, in addition to anger over the company’s broken promises, workers complained of “slave working conditions; racial discrimination; usurping of employees fringe benefits; inhuman treatment of store managers; … failure to implement an affirmative action program; and… unfair demotion procedures.”  Workers also expressed grievances relating to excessive workloads, pointing to the fact that Church’s refused to employ an outside company to clean its stores – a policy that contrasted with established fast food industry standards. Instead, Church’s cut costs by forcing cooks and store managers to meticulously clean their workplace after closing. 
After receiving numerous complaints from workers and Black store managers, Hosea Williams began to mobilize support, once again, for a campaign targeting Church’s. On May 20, 1979, Williams sent a message to the company’s corporate headquarters in San Antonio, declaring that unless the company’s president agreed to meet with Williams within 24 hours, then the SCLC would “lead the citizens of Atlanta in a total withholding patronage campaign against all Church’s Fried Chicken Stores.”  The company’s regional director of operations, Milton Sanders, made a cursory attempt to respond by phoning Williams. The two men engaged in a contentious phone conversation that produced a quick impasse.
The following day, Williams and a group of 35 Church’s employees set up a picket line at a single store in downtown Atlanta. During the second day of the strike, picket lines then spread to two additional stores with the movement now encompassing a total of 100 Church’s workers.  According to a story in the Atlanta Voice, the strike/boycott dramatically hampered sales at the effected stores. At the downtown location, “600 uncooked chickens were removed from the store” on the second day of the movement.  The initial strength of the movement helped to imbue striking workers and supporters with a sense of confidence. By all accounts, the picket lines at Church’s stores were, at least initially, characterized by a vibrant, almost festive atmosphere. Outside struck stores, workers and supporters chanted into bullhorns, sang, and distributed flyers to passing pedestrians and would-be customers.  In addition to workers and other supporters, the Church’s picket lines were also bolstered by a number of small-scale Black vendors and business owners, who joined the movement to protest against Church’s failure to patron Black-owned businesses.
One of the most striking features of the 1979 strike/boycott at Church’s was the active involvement of a sizeable group of Black store managers. Notably, the very fact that, in 1979, Church’s employed substantial numbers of Blacks in this position was a direct consequence of the 1972 strike. But despite this change in promotional practices, many Black store managers soon discovered that their new position did not exempt them from racist mistreatment at the hands of the company. Indeed, in both 1977 and 1979, numerous Black store managers expressed grievances about being subjected to racism by upper management. In particular, Black managers and workers in Atlanta singled out the company’s regional director of operations, Milton Sanders, for his racist treatment of store-level employees. According to a flyer handed out by picketing strikers and supporters at struck Church’s stores, Sanders had a habit of “harassing and abusing [Black managers] in the presence of their employees.” Apparently, whenever a store manager refused to accept this treatment, Sanders would then threaten “to write them up.”  This racist treatment persisted despite the fact that Sanders was a Black man himself.
Problematically, throughout the course of the 1979 strike/boycott, the grievances of Black store managers became the primary focus of the entire campaign. As evidence, the strike/boycott flyers – which appear to have been designed by Hosea Williams – focused almost exclusively on the concerns of “hard-working, loyal store Managers.”  The reason for this orientation owed much to a conscious decision made by Hosea Williams to tailor the campaign to store managers. This stemmed, in part, from Williams’ newly-acquired class outlook as a Black businessman. As already noted, in 1976, Williams had become a full-fledged capitalist. On this basis, he was far more apt to identify with the concerns of Black managers than he was with those of lowly wage workers. In addition to Williams’ class outlook, this orientation to Black managers likely owed much to the influence of conservative Black Nationalist politics within the broader Black community during this period.
Whatever the source, the decision to orient the 1979 campaign to store managers was a tactical blunder. As a general rule of thumb, store managers occupy a conflicting social position within the service industry. While they often perform productive labor and are an essential component of the capitalist production process, the main function of store managers is to serve as surrogates of upper management. The company entrusts them with overseeing and enforcing the day-to-day exploitation of production workers. In turn, store managers are provided with pay and benefits that far surpass anything offered to wage workers. These factors mean that the relationship between store managers and workers often tends to be defined by coercion – not solidarity. This dramatically circumscribes the ability of store managers to serve as strike leaders or build support and solidarity among the workers they’re employed to supervise. What’s more, the esteemed position of store managers within capitalist enterprises makes them particularly vulnerable to pressure by upper management. On this basis, Black store managers at Church’s made for unreliable supporters of the 1979 strike/boycott. Most problematically of all, the overwhelming orientation of the campaign to the demands of managers likely served to undermine the participation of Church’s production workers, many of whom would have viewed store managers as, at best, pseudo allies and, at worst, agents of the company.
Despite these limitations, at the outset of the 1979 strike/boycott, both Williams and the striking Church’s workers appear to have been confident in their ability to exact concessions from the company. Tellingly, on the second day of the 1979 strike/boycott, Williams informed the Atlanta Voice that, from that point forward, “at least one branch would be added per day to the boycott, until all branches in Atlanta are included, or until… Church’s management makes some substantial policy changes.”  While Williams’ bold plan does not appear to have come to fruition, a week after the start of the strike, the movement still retained much of its early momentum. On May 29, a total of 20 Church’s employees – seven of them Black store managers – took part in a boycott rally held at a single store in downtown Atlanta, according to an estimate provided by Church’s director of operations Sanders. Given the biased nature of the source and the limited scope of the estimate, it’s fair to assume that the actual number of Church’s workers taking part in the strike at that time was dramatically higher. 
But despite its initial strength, it is evident that the 1979 strike/boycott lacked much of the support and thrust that characterized the 1972 campaign. Most notably, unlike its antecedent, the 1979 strike/boycott did not take place within a broader mass movement and strike wave in opposition to racial injustice. What’s more, the 1979 campaign was actively opposed by portions of Atlanta’s Civil Rights and Black political establishments.  Early on in the struggle, the national SCLC – then embroiled in yet another bout of internal conflict with Hosea Williams – publically disassociated itself from the Church’s strike. In a statement published in the Atlanta Daily World, a national SCLC official insisted, “This is not our movement. Our position is that [Williams] is not a part of our staff. The national organization is not in contention with Church’s Fried Chicken.” 
To make matters worse for Church’s strikers, the 1979 campaign took place within a time period in Atlanta that was particularly inhospitable to organized labor and workers’ struggles in general. Just two years earlier, Atlanta’s first ever Black mayor, Maynard Jackson, had gone out of his way to break a strike waged by municipal sanitation workers. This came despite the fact that Jackson had – prior to his election as mayor – openly supported the 1970 sanitation workers’ strike. By 1977, however, his allegiance had shifted. On the second day of the strike, Jackson announced that he would fire and permanently replace all workers that failed to report back within 48 hours. This hard-line stance received the backing of a number of prominent Civil Rights leaders, almost all of whom had – like Jackson – backed the 1970 strike. Most repugnantly, Martin Luther King, Sr. – the father of the fabled Civil Rights martyr – came out in favor of Jackson’s strike-breaking plan. Speaking on the ninth anniversary of his son’s assassination, Dr. King, Sr. admonished Jackson to “fire the hell out of them.”  In retrospect, Jackson’s handling of the 1977 sanitation strike did much to tip the balance of class forces against the interests of Atlanta workers. Most notably, this action established a precedent that encouraged Atlanta’s private sector employers to adopt a hard-line stance when confronted by strikes and union struggles.
Within this context, Church’s felt empowered to break away from the conciliatory tone that had characterized its handling of previous labor unrest in 1972 and 1977. To this ends, Church’s responded to the 1979 strike/boycott, in part, by waging a malicious smear campaign aimed at defaming Hosea Williams and distracting from the legitimate demands of striking workers. Approximately two weeks into the strike, the company began distributing a series of leaflets to customers and passerbys at store locations throughout the city. In one particularly egregious flyer, the company drew attention to Williams’ dubious credentials as a labor leader:
Who Is Hosea L. Williams? He is an entrepreneur, businessman and capitalist. He has an interest in Southeastern Chemical Manufacturers and Distribution Corp. and Metro Atlanta SCLC Typesetting and Printing Company. His intentions are to try and force us to make deals with his companies. Deals that would benefit him directly. …
Rev. Hosea L. Williams Is Only Concerned With Himself and what can benefit him personally and politically. He only pickets our stores to draw your attention to him. None of the Church’s employees are picketing. He is using non-employees of Church’s to spread his distortions.
Rev. Hosea L. Williams Totally Misrepresents The Facts and distorts information to our customers and to our employees concerning their wages and benefits. He apparently intends to continue to insult your intelligence by continuing these falsehoods. Our employees know that they are well paid and receive numerous benefits. …
In supposed contrast to Williams, the company flyer boasted that “Church’s Fried Chicken has always been a community leader, especially in the Black Community.” The flyer concluded by issuing an apology “for the harassment that has been inflicted upon you our customers by this self-servicing politician.” 
Church’s efforts to break the strike were further bolstered by the active assistance of Atlanta police. On May 31, police conducted the first of two raids against Church’s picket lines, arresting Williams and another protester on charges stemming from “the use of a bullhorn.” As Williams rightly concluded, this incident constituted “a police effort to break up a picket line.” The second police raid came on June 7 at the store in downtown Atlanta. This time, police arrested Tyrone Brooks – a close associate of Williams – and another unidentified picketer (possibly Williams himself).  In response to these and other acts of strike-breaking, Brooks would later allege that Church’s was encouraging police to harass picketers through providing them with “free chicken dinners” and other “compensations.” As sensational as this charge appears, Brooks’ accusation was deemed serious enough to prompt Atlanta Police Chief George Napper to announce plans to conduct “an immediate investigation.”  Not surprisingly, however, there is no evidence to suggest that any such investigation ever took place.
By the end of June, the company had succeeded in dramatically weakening the strike/boycott campaign. In a June 24 story, the Atlanta Daily World reported that, after a strong start, the movement had since been “reduced to lone strikers in scattered locations.”  Ultimately, the demise of the 1979 strike/boycott movement appears to have come about through a process of gradual attrition. Naturally, this was accompanied by the outbreak of a legal battle, which began on June 23 when Williams filed a $1 million libelous suit against Church’s. In addition to pointing to the company’s defamatory flyers, the suit also called attention to a newspaper advertisement that referred to Williams as a “common blackmailer and extortionist.” Church’s responded to this with a $3.2 million libelous countersuit against Williams.  What’s more, the company also filled a series of unfair labor practices charges against Williams with the National Labor Relations Board. Following a series of court decisions and appeals, the libelous cases stemming from the 1979 strike/boycott ultimately came to an end two years later when both parties formally agreed to drop all remaining charges. For his part, Williams agreed to call off the moribund boycott campaign. By that time, of course, the brief upsurge in struggle by Church’s workers had long since been crushed under foot. 
A Legacy of Racism
The demise of the 1979 strike/boycott appears to have crushed the legacy of workers’ resistance at Church’s that had been originally set in motion by the 1972 strike wave. This development did not, however, bring about an end to ongoing controversies related to issues of racism and racial discrimination at Church’s Fried Chicken. Indeed, by the early 1980s, the company had developed a reputation within substantial portions of Black America as a bastion of racism and bigotry. While conflicts between the company and its Black workers undoubtedly played a part in this development, the most significant factor was the company’s conspicuous and racially antiquated relationship to the Black community. Not surprisingly, many Blacks came to resent the ubiquitous presence of Church’s – a white-owned, Southern company that sold fried chicken and soul food to an overwhelmingly Black clientele – within many inner-city neighborhoods.
By the early 1980s, this widespread distrust toward Church’s led to the spread of a bizarre urban legend about the company. As recounted by academic sociologist Patricia A. Turner, this urban legend claimed that Church’s was “owned by the Ku Klux Klan.” What’s more, the myth further alleged that the Klan was “contaminating the chicken so that eating it caused sterility in black male consumers.”  Astonishingly, this myth became so well-known during this period that it prompted U.S. Congressman Jim Bates, a Democrat from San Diego, to arrange “for the Food and Drug Administration to use gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to test” the company’s chicken.  While the test determined Church’s food was not – in fact – contaminated, the myth continued to persist. Apparently, Church’s perceived this rumor to be such a treat that, in 1986, the company’s board chairman, J. David Bamberger, actually agreed to be interviewed by Patricia Turner as part of her research about the myth. In the interview, Bamberger admitted that “There is no question but that it [the rumor] hurts our business and our employees.” 
Ultimately, the existence of this rumor – as well as Church’s generally horrendous reputation within the Black community – prompted the company in 1984 to sponsor a major public relations campaign, conducted with the hired assistance of a high-profile Black PR firm.  A month after retaining the new PR consultant, Church’s went public with an announcement of plans to help “revitalize inner cities throughout the country.” Among other initiatives, the company drew attention to a campaign to remodel and upgrade some 19 Church’s Fried Chicken stores in the Miami area.  In early February of the following year, Church’s made headlines when it announced plans to provide donations totaling some $100,000 to a series of Civil Rights groups, including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, SCLC, the NAACP, and Operation PUSH, among others. In a press conference held in Atlanta to publicize the donation, SCLC president Joseph Lowery praised Church’s act of philanthropy as “a fitting inaugural for Black History Month.” Lowery added that he was “glad to see the reinvestment from Church’s into the Black Community.”  During another ceremony held a week later, Church’s gave away its first annual “Martin Luther King, Sr. Community Service Award” in front of a packed crowd of Civil Rights stalwarts at an Atlanta AME Church. Fittingly, the recipient of the award was former SCLC president Ralph D. Abernathy. During his announcement, Church’s regional manager praised Abernathy for “his astute and dedicated leadership and his unyielding faith in the ultimate triumph of good over evil.” 
Flowery prose aside, Church’s move to shower SCLC leaders and other Civil Rights figures with donations and plaudits can only be read as a cynical ploy designed to rehabilitate the company’s image in the Black community and, in addition, further co-opt the Civil Rights establishment. In case of future labor unrest, Church’s could rest assured that the SCLC would – as it had done in 1979 – step aside and allow the company to bust the movement.
The high point in Church’s Civil Rights-washing gambit came just a month later during the twentieth-annual commemorative march from Selma to Montgomery, held to celebrate the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. As part of the occasion, local Church’s stores donated an abundance of free food to the sponsors of the event. Participants were thus treated to a free meal courtesy of Church’s Fried Chicken at the end of the 50-mile march. Reflecting on this event in a story in the Atlanta Daily World, Church’s president Richard Sherman espoused a series of well-crafted platitudes about racial harmony. As Sherman declared, the re-enactment was important because it “breathed life into Dr. King’s dream.” He added, “All Americans must walk together if we are to realize the true meaning of democracy.” 
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Clearly, Church’s is not the only corporation with a history of attempting to co-opt “Dr. King’s dream.” Over the years, this has become a common practice by corporate elites and other enemies of social justice. As historian Timothy B. Tyson aptly notes,
In the years since his murder, we have transformed King into a kind of innocuous black Santa Claus, genial and vacant, a benign vessel that can be filled with whatever generic good wishes the occasion dictates. Politicians who oppose everything King worked for now jostle their way onto podiums to honor his memory. 
In contrast to this corporate-friendly figment, however, the real legacy of Dr. King belongs with those who have fought – and those who continue to fight – for social justice and workers’ rights. This includes the workers at Church’s that struck in opposition to racism and hyper-exploitation in 1972 and 1979. It also includes the modern-day workers at Church’s and elsewhere that are fighting to build the Fight for 15 movement.
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13. While the SCLC provided negligible support to the Church’s strike/boycott in 1972, they did not see fit, at that point in time, to openly oppose or speak out against the movement. This changed during the 1979 strike/boycott.
14. Adele S. Newsom, “Black Church’s Exec Calls Allegations By Hosea Williams False,” Atlanta Daily World, June 24, 1979. For details on the 1979 conflict between the SCLC and Hosea Williams, see Rick Dunn, “SCLC Seeks Solution To Internal Squabble,” Atlanta Voice, April 7, 1979.
15. Joseph A. McCartin, “‘Fire the Hell out of Them’: Sanitation Workers’ Struggles and the Normalization of the Striker Replacement Strategy in the 1970s,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 2, No. 3 (Fall 2005), 68.
21. Williams v. Church’s Fried Chicken, et al. “Agreement between Hosea Williams and Church’s Fried Chicken,” May 17, 1981. Hosea L. Williams papers, Series 5, Subseries B, Box 1, Folder 6, Auburn Avenue Research Library.
24. Ibid., 300. Turner provides a series of explanations to account for the apparent plausibility of the “Klan-Church’s” myth within the Black community: 1.) the company’s origins in the South; 2.) the fact that the company’s menu and name appeared intentionally designed to appeal to a Black audience; 3.) the location of the vast majority of the company’s stores in “inner-city black areas where whites would be unlikely to venture”; and 4.) the fact that Church’s maintained a minuscule advertising budget, a feature that rendered the company “conspicuous through its anonymity.” In presenting this assessment, Turner does not consider the history of structural racism at Church’s to be a factor in the development of this racially-charged rumor. In general, she appears to be wholly unaware of the history of labor struggles waged by Black Church’s workers. Thus, rather than taking the company to task for its history of racism and the brutal exploitation of its Black workforce, Turner instead absolves Church’s of any and all blame in the development of the “Klan-Church’s” myth. Indeed, Turner goes so far as to praise Church’s for its supposed history of racially progressive policies, insisting that Church’s has “endeavored to keep its doors open to minorities.” She concludes by noting that Church’s “is being victimized by an unfortunate set of social circumstances that are for the most part beyond its control.” This claim does not hold up in light of the history of labor unrest at Church’s stores in Atlanta in 1972 and 1979.Viewed within this context, it is apparent that Church’s actively earned its reputation as a bastion of racism. Ibid., 299, 305.
25. “Church’s Retains Black PR Firm,” Atlanta Daily World, September 27, 1984. Fittingly, the Black-owned public relations company hired by Church’s was none other than B & C Associates – a North Carolina-based firm with a long history of conducting anti-union campaigns targeting Black workers. As recounted by labor historian Timothy Minchin, “One of B & C’s central techniques was to use the power of the civil rights movement’s legacy as a way of breaking union solidarity among African Americans.” For instance, “In a union campaign against [textile company] Cannon Mills in 1974, B & C utilized two black ministers with ties to the 1960s movement to stage a rally for management just before the election. In other campaigns, B & C agents claimed that they had worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and were members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They then proceeded to disseminate anti-union material with a civil rights flavor. In several campaigns, for example, black workers were told that ‘Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Died in Memphis, Tennessee While Helping Workers Form A Union.’ B & C also used songs of the civil rights movement but changed the words to give them an anti-union meaning.”
As Minchin further summarizes, by the early 1990s, “B & C had effectively thwarted [textile union drives] in many campaigns in the South. It had been successful because it had persuaded black community leaders to speak out against the union, and because it had frequently used the threat of plant closings at a time when textile plants were shutting down as a result of foreign imports and mergers. The fact that the firm’s agents were all African American also had an impact. As one union official commented, ‘When you put black on black, a black consultant against a group of black workers, they will have some credibility, just as a black union organizer has an impact with a group of black workers.’” Timothy J. Minchin, Hiring the Black Worker: The Racial Integration of the Southern Textile Industry, 1960-1980 (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 260-261.