Killer Coke: The Egregious History of the Coca-Cola Company
Note: Years ago, Alex Cockburn tried to encourage me to write a book about The Coca-Cola Company. I haven’t done this yet. But he would be pleased, however, about me mentioning the recent victory reported by the India Resource Center regarding “Coca-Cola Expansion Plans Rejected” in India. This was followed by Coca-Cola announcing that it was removing its application for its creation of a facility in a water starved area in India, “Coca-Cola Forced to Abandon $25 Million Project in India”. While traveling in East Asia years ago, Alex had linked up with the India Resource Center in their efforts to address Coca-Cola’s abusive behavior in India’s rural communities that primarily impacted increased water loss and pollution. This week I also received a notice about the need to boycott The Coca-Cola Company because of it’s affiliation with Monsanto to prevent efforts in various states to label GMO products. It seems wherever I go and whatever I do for some reason I am confronted with The Coca-Cola Company and its oppressive arrogant behavior.
The Coca-Cola Company is, of course, a capitalist company meaning that its goal is to make money virtually any way possible. It’s good at this. Its market cap today is $168.7 billion according to Forbes. Since it’s founding in the late 1800’s it is now known to be the most recognized product in the world. Its goal of making money is accomplished regardless of the consequences be it environmental degradation, pollution, abuse of and destabilizing water use, worker assassinations, discrimination in the work place, or the health of individuals drinking its product, to name but a few. Promoting a product that requires purchase by huge numbers of individuals in order to make a profit necessitates deliberate efforts at creating a positive public image. It’s good at that also but it is simultaneously considered by some as one of the most evil corporations in the world – a designation that suits it well.
Living in Atlanta, the home of Coca-Cola, the time has come for me to begin writing about the company, as Alex Cockburn had wanted. The purpose of this article on Coca-Cola is to share an assortment of some of my personal experiences with the corporation in the past few decades in reference to Atlanta, South Africa and the Philippines. For a fairly comprehensive list of criticisms against The Coca-Cola Company throughout the world that I won’t be referring to please go to: Killer Coke.
Coke in Atlanta
Asa G. Candler (1851-1929) was the founder of “The Coca-Cola Company” in 1892. He managed to purchase the rights to use the formula, but not the name “Coca-Cola”. So, at first, the drink by Candler was called “Yum Yum” and “Koke”.
John Pemberton, a pharmacist from Georgia, was the creator of Coca-Cola formula who died in 1888. And yes, it did contain cocaine initially. He was wounded in the civil war, as part of Confederate Army, and like many others became addicted to morphine while trying to relieve the pain. He created this non-alcoholic drink to help diminish the pain and his addiction. Pemberton gave his son Charles the right to the name “Coca-Cola”.
Charles Pemberton was, then, a thorn in Candler’s side. He died mysteriously in 1894. It is widely known that Candler was pleased that Charles was out of the way. The whole saga of obtaining the total rights to the formula and Coca-Cola name, however, is couched in vagaries, intrigue, perhaps criminal behavior and questionable legal tactics. Did Charles Pemberton commit suicide? The question remains unanswered. It is known, however, that in 1910, Asa Candler had all the older records of the company destroyed when it moved into a larger building. Only the official records of the title were left intact. He did this in spite of the objections of his nephew (“For God, Country, and Coca-Cola”, 2013, Mark Pendergrast).
I grew up in Atlanta, the home of Coca-Cola no less. To begin this saga, I need to say that I went to Druid Hills High School in the Druid Hill area that borders Emory University where I also started my university career and that has strong Coca-Cola connections.
The Candler family’s involvement in the Druid Hills area was profound in the early 1900’s and resonated for subsequent decades. It’s as if the aura of Candler was everywhere.
It was Asa Candler, the founder of The Coca-Cola Company and brother to former Emory President Warren Candler, who helped the church (Methodist Episcopal Church) decide that the new university should be built in Atlanta. Writing to the Educational Commission of the church on June 17, 1914, Asa Candler offered “the sum of one million dollars” and a subsequent gift of seventy-two acres of land. With such munificence placed at its disposal, the commission quickly made up its mind, and the Emory College trustees agreed to move the college (from Oxford, Georgia) to Atlanta as the liberal arts core of the university. (http://emoryhistory.emory.edu/history)
Candler’s philosophy was seemingly a combination of “trickle down” economics and individuals simply being blessed by God for their wealth. It was most definitely not “collective” in motive or philosophy. But he did have a mission, albeit what is seemingly an elite one. In her book “God’s Capitalist: Asa Candler of Coca-Cola” (2002) Kathryn Kemp is described as explaining Candler as follows:
(The book is) An examination of an entrepreneur who saw his personal wealth as a divine trust. Kathryn W. Kemp (asks) Can a rich man enter heaven? Asa Candler, who was a very rich man, thought so. He accepted the principle of Christian stewardship, which holds that God gives wealth to individuals in order to promote His kingdom on earth. Candler thus felt obligated to protect and build the fortune that he held as a sacred trust, and to use it to carry out God’s purposes in the world. “God’s Capitalist: Asa Candler of Coca-Cola” is an examination of the life of an entrepreneur who saw his personal wealth as a divine trust to be used to the benefit of humanity…. At the end of his life, he had given away his entire fortune. Despite his wealth and reputation, he was opposed by those who did not share his point of view, which was primarily shaped by his religion and his social position among Atlanta’s elite. (http://www.mupress.org/productdetails.cfm?PC=581)
As you might assume correctly, Emory University has the “Candler Theological Center”. Not wanting to disparage Candler’s religious faith, it has not been uncommon for white Southern elite historically to use religion as a way to both justify and assuage their guilt for white southern abuse of power and white supremacy overall. To put this in context, in the early 1900’s the white South was launching its oppressive Jim Crow laws and in 1906 the infamous Atlanta Race Riots occurred as Blacks started moving into Atlanta from rural areas.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, at Druid Hill High School, I would often look out my classroom window across the football field to the railroad tracks and then to the estate on the “other side of the tracks”. The estate was the property of Walter T. Candler, the third son of Asa Candler. Walter Candler purchased this 185-acre property in 1925 that he called the Lullwater Farms and built his sizable house on the property in 1926. I would often see cows grazing on the field by the railroad tracks. In 1958 Candler sold the property to Emory University. Since 1963 the Emory president, whoever that might be at the time, has lived in the Lullwater House.
Throughout the Druid Hills neighborhood and close to the high school there are reminders of Asa Candler and his four children. They all had mansions in the area that have, thankfully, now been converted into public institutions of some sort, or owned by Emory University, and one is now a condominium community attached to the mansion that some say is haunted (Asa Candler’s son-in-law, Henry Heinz, was murdered on the property in 1943).
Robert Woodruff (1889-1985) became the president of Coca-Cola in 1923 and remained in that position until 1954. He stayed on the Coca-Cola board of directors, however, until 1984. His name is everywhere in Atlanta from parks, university libraries, to a whole assortment of buildings. Woodruff continued the Coca-Cola tradition of supporting the “white” Emory University but also the “black” Atlanta University Center. He was in no way as generous to Atlanta University as with Emory. The center of the city has the “Woodruff Park” which is now named by activists as the Troy Davis Park – Davis is a black male who was, what many considered, illegally executed by the State of Georgia in 2011.
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 in Memphis, known as the “Mountaintop Speech”, he 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.
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 Robert Woodruff and former Georgia Governor Carl Sanders. Johnson did on occasion talk with Woodruff either in person or on the phone. (Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Recordings – Johnson Conversation #5966 with Robert Woodruff on Oct 25, 1964 (WH6410.14) http://millercenter.org/presidentialrecordings/lbj-wh6410.14-5966).
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 in a racial discrimination case, The Coca-Cola Company agreed yesterday to pay more than $156 million to resolve a federal lawsuit brought by black employees.
The settlement also mandates 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. Because 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 90s. Gcabashe is the daughter of Chief Albert Lithuli who was a former president of the ANC and the first African Nobel Peace Prize winner (1960). Lithuli was killed mysterious in 1967 forcing Gcabashe to leave South Africa in the early 1970’s.
The boycott was launched because of Coke’s refusal to completely disinvest itself from South Africa and because of its hypocritical efforts to claim it was doing something positive in the South African economy to advance Black wealth and opportunity. Below are 1986 reports from AFSC and the American Committee on Africa (ACOA) about Coca-Cola in South Africa.
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 –http://africanactivist.msu.edu/index.php)
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 –http://africanactivist.msu.edu/index.php)
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.
(Regarding the Nazi regime) 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 http://killercoke.org)
In 1986 the King Holiday was launched throughout the country. At the time, I was directing the non-violent program for Coretta Scott King at the King Center in Atlanta. Mrs. King asked me to organize the “International Anti-Apartheid Conference” as part of the 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 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 who was assisting Mrs. King at the time, 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) – division 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. But I was not sure how you could hold a legitimate anti-apartheid conference that did not include the ANC that was the leader of the movement.
Nevertheless, I was told by some leaders around Mrs. King not to pay any attention to this and 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. The role Coke played is this scenario is not known for sure, but the Coke boycott was heating up, and there was clearly some collaboration going on here, albeit Mrs. King was not involved that I am aware of.
When Mandela visited Atlanta in 1990 after his release from prison 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 Gcbasche, while in the states he asked that one of the hotels he was in remove all Coke vending machines.
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 from the Coke representative. There were also all kinds of Coke drinks available after the service.
Coke in the Philippines
In 1989 while in the Philippines, 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. This is Coke pushing its product no matter the consequences.
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. Was Coke part of the anti-communist initiatives in the Philippines? Probably, but I don’t have the definitive proof. I would assume also that most U.S. corporations in the Philippines were following and/or supporting the U.S. initiatives. They would not have wanted to lose the U.S. military bases guaranteed through the MBA that, regardless, finally did end in the early 1990s.
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!
HEATHER GRAY is the producer of “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.