This Team of Black Men Fought & Won

– Stanley Crouch, New York Daily News, 1/15/2007

We celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. today because he represented a movement that brought about monumental change in American society. 

And there can be no greater example of what preceded King’s arrival on the scene in the mid-1950s than a big decision made by a company interested in selling something so seemingly unimportant as a soft drink. 

Pepsi-Cola made a decision in the 1940s that addressed the ongoing struggle between profit and ethics at the center of American capitalism. In other words, there should be a morality upon which one bases the making of money. 

Pepsi was in a furious battle with Coca-Cola. Pepsi needed something to push it out in front. Black Americans, still hampered by racist stereotypes, were on the long march to get into the corporate world, which was closed to them because their social cause had not been associated with high revenues and first-class corporate performance. 

Walter Mack, the president of Pepsi-Cola, decided to hire a team of African-American men to develop the company’s access to the black wing of the ethnic market. This decision foreshadowed the revolution that we would later see in corporate America. 

Last week, I had the opportunity to meet Edward Boyd, the black man hired by Mack who headed the team of marketers that boosted the sales of Pepsi and who experienced the roller coaster of celebration and denigration that was common to black people who traveled the country and were forced to deal with segregation and unabashed bigotry. 

The story of Boyd’s pioneering team is the subject of a book, “The Real Pepsi Challenge,” by Stephanie Capparell, which details how Boyd & Co. were able to prove the value of black employees beyond the normal corporate positions of janitors and cleanup crews. 

Despite the hardships of dealing with Jim Crow laws, Boyd and his team stood up to the challenge and worked on the ground in black communities as they developed support, raised sales, created ads and got endorsements from celebrities like Ralph Bunche, Duke Ellington and Gordon Parks. They even got Ron Brown in an ad as a little boy in 1947. 

While it is no longer unusual to see black men, women and children depicted as normal human beings in advertisements for any product from the most luxurious to the most insipid, it was quite unusual when Boyd and his crew went to work. The ads they produced were revolutionary. 

Listening to Boyd and the other surviving members of the team that led the corporate revolution was satisfying. And it would have made Martin Luther King Jr. himself quite proud. It was, as one black corporate executive in attendance said, “quite inspiring to see and hear these men who sacrificed, led the way and did so much for us in the corporate world. Now we have a chance to make it better for those who come after us.”