A Stunning Portrait of Systematic Racism at a Major National Chain

Racism and Redemption in an American Corporate Empire by Steve Watkins

This startling journalistic effort by first-time author Steve Watkins looks at Jim Crow-era hiring practices at a national restaurant chain. Ray Danner, the charismatic and diminutive head of Nashville-based Shoney’s, spent most weekends flying to his restaurants across the country. His inspections were the stuff of legend—he was famous for pitching in if the restaurant was busy, and he made time to speak to all the staff.

According to the managers under his rule, he also made sure to let them know if there were too many blacks working in a particular restaurant. “Lighten the place up” was a favored euphemism for this policy.

The chain’s upper ranks instructed managers to cut back on black staff by sharply reducing their work hours, and promotions of black workers were all but forbidden. In April 1988, managers Billie and Henry Elliott were fired for refusing to comply with Shoney’s racial policy, and the incensed couple went to Tommy Warren, a football star turned lawyer who agreed to take on the company’s large and well-paid legal team. Warren found thousands of black workers who had been humiliated and fired from Shoney’s restaurants, and more, like Josephine Haynes, whose applications for work had been ignored: Managers were instructed to blacken the o in “Shoney’s” on the application form if the job-seeker was black.

The class-action case (on behalf of 21,000 victims of discrimination) languished for years under Clarence Thomas at the EEOC, though the numbers of those discriminated against by Shoney’s kept growing. At the same time, the Supreme Court whittled away at the legal standing of discrimination suits, forcing Warren to focus almost solely on applicants who had been unfairly denied work. Nevertheless, Warren prevailed and settled the case with Shoney’s in 1992 for $132.5 million, the largest such settlement in US history. An unsettling, fascinating revelation of a truly wretched corporate environment and a rare triumph for the underdog.

THE BLACK O: RACISM AND REDEMPTION IN AN AMERICAN CORPORATE EMPIRE by Steve Watkins 

Rebecca Kurson

Rebecca Kurson writes about literature, pop culture, television, science fiction and music. Her work has appeared in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Observer, The Federalist and Rodale's Organic Life.

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