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Birmingham’s First Black McDonald’s Owner Started Making $5 an Hour Painting Signs for Coca-Cola

When Larry Thornton became one of six students to integrate Goodwyn Middle School in 1967, he was hardly a star student. He said he couldn’t even imagine the man he would some day become.

The self-made author and entrepreneur went from making $5 an hour painting signs at Coca-Cola to becoming the first Black owner of a McDonald’s franchise in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1992.

He also became the first Black member of the board of directors for Coca-Cola’s Bottling Company United, Inc. in 2003. Now, his book, “Why Not Win?” has informed the curriculum for a nonprofit institute aimed at preparing students, industry executives and employees to succeed in leadership roles, Zillah Fluker, a spokeswoman for the Why Not Win institute, said.

The institute has used the book’s revenue to fund its programming and to donate $3,000 to the UNCF (United Negro College Fund) and almost $1,000 to the Tom Joyner Foundation for scholarships. It’s the kind of success Thornton said in a recent phone interview with Atlanta Black Star that he didn’t think was possible as a boy.

Larry Thornton
Larry Thornton is a self-made author and entrepreneur. (Photo by Why Not Win?)

He was a child during a time when it was normal for his mom to warn him:

“Watch out for the chain gang. Watch out for the Klan.” He still remembers receiving the news on April 4, 1968, that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed. Thornton was 12 years old.

He said coming to school the next day was tough, but he remembers exiting the school bus and seeing a crowd unlike any other day. The mass of parents and onlookers were waiting to see how the six Black kids responded to King’s death.

Thornton said he remembers dead silence until a freckle-faced, white boy broke that silence.

“Y’alls king is dead,” he said. “What y’all n—-s gon do now?”

Thornton said that was the last straw.

“I just retreated into my art, into my drawing,” he said.

He wrote off school, mostly because school had written him off.

“There was a certain element of suppose about it all that I never could figure out in my young mind,” Thornton said. A Black boy at a predominantly white school, he wasn’t supposed to be treated fairly. He wasn’t supposed to be smart.

White students avoided him in the hallways. They refused to drink from a water fountain after he used it. And if he ever got the ball playing football, he wouldn’t have to worry about being able to score touchdowns because the white players didn’t want to touch him.

“Because of my skin pigment and hair texture, this is life,” Thornton said he thought at the time.

He failed summer school twice, once after ninth grade before he was passed on to 10th anyway and again after 10th grade before he was passed on to the 11th. The next year is when he found out through luck of the draw, he had gotten the English teacher all the students at school tried to avoid.

She was a World War II veteran Thornton simply knew as Miss Nichols. “This lady was just hard core,” Thornton said. Tough as she may have been, she was also fair, which Thornton learned when she assigned a book report on “The Pilgrim’s Progress” by author John Bunyan.

Having picked up on the telling names of some of the story’s characters, Thornton got a B+ on the report, and that earned him an invitation inside the woman’s home.

Thornton and his dad, a baker who couldn’t read, would pick up extra cash doing yard work for white people in his community. That included Miss Nichols. But rather than paper cup of water and sandwich brought out back to the boy, Thornton remembers Miss Nichols inviting him in, and he learned that the unrelenting woman he knew at school was actually kind and warm.

“She said to me, ‘I think you ought to go to college,” Thornton said. “That’s the first time that college ever entered my mind.” He said that’s also the first time his name and college were even mentioned in the same sentence, but he trusted Miss Nichols to tell him the truth. “If she said that I was college material, then by God, I must be college material,” Thornton said.

He was. After enrolling at Alexander City State Junior College, he went on to earn a Bachelors of Science Degree in Fine Arts at Alabama State University.