It is not uncommon for political and social groups to be the focus of urban legends. The more negative the organization’s goals the more likely they will be associated with diabolical conspiracies. There is an entire urban legend genre involving rumored ties between racist organizations and companies that cater or market to the black community. The longstanding white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan, is associated with two conspiracies concerning food or beverage products.
Church’s Fried Chicken
At large in the early 1980’s was the rumor that Church’s Fried Chicken was owned by the KKK and that the group had put ingredients in the restaurant’s fried chicken batter that was designed to sterilize black men. Church’s fried chicken maintains very little public advertising and is primarily located in poor inner city neighborhoods with sizable black populations, or in poorer communities in the rural South. This low profile coupled with it’s targeted customer base probably fueled the development of the rumors. At the time the rumor was the most active, many white consumers had never heard of the franchise. I had heard of Church’s because there was a Church’s in my town, in Mississippi, but I never heard this rumor at the time. Perhaps it did not circulate in the rural South.
The same rumor was sometimes transferred to Popeye’s Fried Chicken, a much larger franchise with a much more active advertising campaign. This kind of transference from smaller to larger companies is normal and is known as the Goliath Effect. A related legend, not tied to the KKK, was that Kentucky Fried Chicken was selling rat meat to black customers.
In the 1990’s rumors sprang up about Snapple being owned by the KKK. The evidence? Well there was a picture of a slave ship on the front of the bottles. Of course, it could not have been some other kind of ship. Especially since there was also that mysterious emblem: A “K” inside a circle. That must mean the Klan.
Well, the ship, which is no longer on the bottles, is supposed to be from the Boston Tea Party, and comes from an engraving. You know, Snapple tea? That might be a more credible connection than the Klan. The K in the circle? That means Kosher. Snapple was started by three Jewish guys in New York City.
Tropical Fantasy Soft Drink
Tropical Fantasy, introduced in 1990 by the Brooklyn Bottling company, was the target of a parallel rumor. It was also said that the company was owned by the KKK and that the soft drink, which was low-cost and mostly marketed in black urban areas, was contaminated with an ingredient that would sterilize or cause impotence in black men.
A 20-ounce bottle of tropical fantasy only cost 49 cents as opposed to 80 cents or more for a bottle of Coke or Pepsi, so Tropical Fantasy was a huge success, making the first big selling item Brooklyn Bottling had ever had. But, sales dropped drastically after the rumors began.
Mountain Dew is subject to similar rumors about its effects on male sperm count, but these rumors have no racial connections, nor any connections to sinister organizations (I do not use the term sinister ironically, here, as the KKK is both sinister and evil, not to mention cowardly).
KKK Non-food Legends
Tobacco has long been associated with black-oriented rumors. In the 1960’s, Kool cigarettes was the focus of one. A menthol brand preferred by many black smokers, Kools was said to be owned by the KKK. The use of the letter K to replace the C in cool was often cited as proof. Later it was said that Marlboro was owned by the Klan, and the presence of three hidden K’s on the package was cited. The purported affects of the cigarettes were usually vague, and centered on the acceleration of cancer in black smokers. Since, according to the rumor, many black smokers prefer menthol cigarettes, it was sometimes claimed that all the makers of menthol cigarettes were adding more menthol to accelerate cancer.
[Note: I do not know if it is true that menthol cigarettes are preferred by black smokers. When I have worked in retail establishments selling cigarettes, I did note that most black customers seemed to prefer a menthol brand, Kool being a very popular one, along with Salems. This could be nothing more than coincidence, regional, etc. But it is widely reported to be true.]
Troop Sport Clothing
Troop Sport clothing company, popular in urban areas, was also said to be owned by the KKK. It would be difficult to manufacture a rumor about clothing contamination, so these rumors claimed that there were hidden racist messages or threats on the clothing tags or hidden somewhere on the clothing. Troop was even said by some to stand for To Rule Over Oppressed People. Reebok was also said to have klan ties, but a more popular theme was that the company sent funds to South Africa to support apartheid. Reebok subsequently withdrew its products from the South African market. British Knights, another maker of athletic shoes, was also tied to the klan, and the Knights trademark was associated with the knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Nike and Converse have also been implicated in racist conspiracies. The rage for athletic footwear in the African-American community seems to be the primary motivation for these rumors.