Pepsi’s challenge in 1940s: Color barrier

– Michelle Archer, USA Today, 1/22/2007

Lots of things were different in the 1940s. Television was a luxury item. A 12-oz. bottle of Pepsi cost a nickel.

Not many black people were able to attend college then, and those who did and graduated had few job prospects. So few that in 1940, when Pepsi’s liberal president, Walter Mack, hired Herman Smith, an adman “from the Negro newspaper field” to promote Pepsi in African-American communities, the news made The New York Times.

Pepsi’s revolutionary efforts to hire black sales executives in the pre-civil-rights era — a time when most of Corporate America feared backlash from conservative whites if they merely advertised in the black press — is the focus of The Real Pepsi Challenge, Stephanie Capparell’s eye-opening, and at times devastating, new book.

Capparell is a Wall Street Journal editor and co-author of leadership book Shackleton’s Way.

For Pepsi, she interviewed six surviving members of the “Negro markets” team and scoured the archives of black newspapers and mainstream press.

Her goal was to piece together what happened after Pepsi’s Mack decided to kick off the cola wars with help from the black dollar.

Mack was ahead of his time in recognizing the economic power of black consumers. It wasn’t until 1952, a year after Pepsi’s special-markets team was broken up, that The Wall Street Journal first addressed the worth of the black market, Capparell writes.

Besides Smith’s hiring in 1940, two of Mack’s 13 interns that year were black. By 1948, there were 12 black people selling Pepsi nationwide from corporate headquarters.

All of this during a time when Mack’s Coca-Cola counterpart, Robert Woodruff, opposed “racial mixing,” both on the job and in society, writes Capparell.

But as instrumental as Mack was in opening the door, the heroes of Capparell’s book are the black sales reps who stepped across the threshold, breaking a “color barrier” in the corporate world some seven years before Jackie Robinson did the same in baseball.

Capparell argues that Pepsi assistant sales manager Edward Boyd and his team faced a more uphill battle than black athletes did: Integrating business was far more threatening to white society than integrating sports, because it meant blacks would be vying for the same jobs as everyone else.

Remember, too, that the Pepsi team was traveling a largely segregated country. They were forced to sit in the backs of buses, ride in separate train compartments, eat behind closed curtains in dining cars and stay with a network of families because many hotels didn’t want their business, Capparell writes.

Smith recalled white Pepsi plant owners in Alabama saying, “You’re not wanted here, and you can’t do us any good because nobody would buy from you.”

The team was let loose with little training and few resources for long days of grass-roots efforts like these from Allen McKellar’s 1943 expense report: “Jan. 15: Addressed group of 65 at USO center. Spoke before Senior Negro Chamber of Commerce group of 108. Contacted 12 outlets & made individual contacts. Taxi and bus fares, $3.20.”

Because churches were a big part of the team’s marketing push, Sundays were just another workday, and $1 contributions to the donation plate were often expensed.

Besides racism, Pepsi’s black sales force battled another obstacle on the road: Coke.

Capparell writes about the soft-drink king’s deliverymen pulling down Pepsi signs in stores and wiping oily rags on Pepsi bottles to make them appear dirty.

A boycott of Pepsi in North Carolina was blamed on a rumor started by Coke, according to team member Harvey Russell: “We were pretty sure the Other Bottler had dropped this bit of gossip that a Negro working in the plant had fallen into a syrup tank and died.”

Capparell relates that the team found the support of family and friends invaluable during their corporate struggle, perhaps explaining why she spends so much time on biographical information of the dozen or so members.

The bios, interspersed with company, societal and political events ranging from lynchings to court rulings to Pepsi’s sales figures, contribute to the completeness of Capparell’s historical account, but also make The Real Pepsi Challenge occasionally feel like a meandering slog.

That said, Capparell’s book is undeniably important.

The Pepsi team was responsible for creating advertising that for the first time celebrated African-American “leaders in their fields,” from diplomat Ralph Bunche to Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks.

It is telling that many of the original members of the Pepsi team went on to accomplish great things, despite the odds and what Capparell refers to as the real Pepsi challenge: How could management promote the men above their narrow specialty to leadership roles guiding the company as a whole?

Assistant sales manager Boyd, now 92, became a mission chief at aid agency CARE before retiring in 1981 and developing an alpaca farm in New York.

Russell, who is deceased, stayed with Pepsi and in 1962 became the first African-American vice president of a major U.S. corporation. One became a Foreign Service officer, another the director of the Urban League.

Though some passages of the book seem like relics of a bygone era, there’s no question, as Capparell writes, that many of the issues faced by the Pepsi team have yet to be resolved in business.

Managers today aren’t so much thinking about how to keep minorities out, she writes, as not thinking about minorities at all.

The Real Pepsi Challenge certainly serves Corporate America ample food for thought as well as impetus for a renewed push for equality in the workplace and beyond.