With all the attention on the new film Selma, Americans might have the impression that the story of ordinary people standing together to fight for change is a thing of the past.
As a minister in southern Virginia, I am sorry to report that even in some of the largest and best known corporations in America, the blatant discrimination the civil rights movement fought against is still alive and well.
Take McDonald's as an example. Last year, several African American workers from a McDonald's here in South Boston, Virginia, approached me to report rampant racism that sounded like it came from 50 years ago. These workers were part of a group of workers who were fired, all at the same time, after being told by management that they did not "fit the profile" desired at the store.
The firings followed months of racial harassment in which those supervisors had told them that it was time to "get the ghetto out of the store."
As president of the local NAACP chapter, I offered to help them in any way I could. You might think that McDonald's executives would have had the same reaction, but apparently not.
Several workers contacted McDonald's corporate offices, but were told to appeal to the franchise owner instead -- the same franchise that had just fired them because of their race.
The firings were covered by local media, and a McDonald's corporate representative learned more about them during a regularly scheduled inspection of the store, but the company still took no action to restore the workers' jobs.
Just as elected officials in the Selma film hid behind claims that they weren't responsible for discrimination by local officials over whom they supposedly had no control, top McDonald's executives say they can't be held accountable for racism at what they call "franchises."
This legal fig leaf has already been rejected by the General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board in a case involving McDonald's violation of workers' right to form a union. The company tightly controls and monitors its franchises' employment practices, the General Counsel found.
As Brian Tucker, one of the workers, said,
McDonald's closely monitors everything we do, from the speed of the drive-through line to the way we smile and fold customers' bags -- but when we try to tell the company that we're facing discrimination, they ignore us and say that it's not their problem.
When Mr. Tucker was called in to speak to the owner, he put on his Sunday suit because he thought he was being promoted. Instead, he was fired for being black, just like his coworkers.
Companies like McDonald's advertise heavily in black neighborhoods and make sure to contribute support to black organizations and black leaders. You may have noticed that as sales decline, McDonald's has a new advertising campaign with a series of images designed to connect the company with values that are popular throughout the country such as patriotism, religious faith, good jobs, and civic pride.
But behind the gloss and the rhetoric we see a reality that has not changed much from days gone by. Companies like McDonald's might value black customers to boost their bottom line, but they still turn their back when workers face racism and discrimination on the job.
Fired McDonald's workers in my community have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the company. They have the full support of the South Boston NAACP, along with other civil rights organizations including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Many of us have been inspired by the Selma movie because it is such a vivid reminder of what Americans can accomplish when we join together and hold powerful forces accountable to do the right thing.
Today, fast food workers and many other Americans are applying that lesson to the discrimination, intimidation, and abuse that are still with us, whether it's in a giant corporation like McDonald's or anywhere else we find it.