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The NS Interview: Wilbert Rideau, former death row inmate

“I walked out of prison after 44 years. The world had changed”

You were imprisoned for killing a bank teller in the aftermath of a robbery. What struck you most when you were released?
In prison, you're in limbo, a timelessness. When I walked out, after more than four decades, the world had changed. Before I went inside, it was a racially segregated world. When I left, I found blacks operating cash registers and in positions of society that they were never allowed [to reach] before.

Did you pick up habits that are hard to shake?
In prison, you inspect your food before you eat it to make sure that there isn't anything in it that shouldn't be in it. I've been out for six years now and I still do it.

Did you always have faith that you'd get out?
Sometimes you did. Sometimes you'd despair. When I was on death row, for the first 12 years, I was certain that I was going to die. When the jury freed me, I was surprised.

Were you bitter about the 1961 trial?
Everybody assumed that I'd had a fair trial. I never had a trial at all; my lawyer didn't even call any witnesses. But that was just the way they did justice for blacks - arbitrarily. As soon as you know that, there's not much to be bitter about. Let's keep in mind, nobody had kidnap­ped me and dragged me to prison to hurt me. I went there because of my own mistakes.

You speak about the impact that the prison warden C Paul Phelps had on you.
The first person ever to trust me was the man who ran the whole prison system. It's a commentary on the sad state of affairs in America that I had to go to prison for someone finally to take an interest in me. What happened to the schools and the churches?

What turned your life around?
After I'd been on death row, I read an awful lot. I found hope in the stories I read about Malcolm X - a guy who'd turned his life around - and Mahatma Gandhi and the nameless English convicts who were exiled to Australia and built a nation. The same old, no-good, unsalvageable ex-cons! I thought: "If they could do it, then maybe I can do it: you're not lost."

Do people have misconceptions about prison?
One of the things that drove me to want to be a journalist was knowing how misinformed and ignorant the public was about prison. Reporting and analysing it gave me a purpose and allowed me to become someone with a mission.

You edited an uncensored prison newspaper. How did that begin?
When the warden took over, he thought that the prison was so horrific that if he exposed what was going on, the public might be moved to change things. So he gave freedom of expression to all employees and all prisoners. As long as we operated by the same ethical and legal standards as professional journalists, we could investigate anything. That was the best job I ever had. I loved it because we did a lot of good.

You had the support of ex-parole officers and wardens, yet it was decades before you were released. Why?
In part, it was because I'd become high-profile and my case had become a political football. And, in part, it was because - you have to remember this - in Louisiana, the criminal justice system is a very racist one. They'd been trying to kill me since 1961 and they hadn't succeeded. But that didn't mean they didn't want me to die in prison.

Should the death penalty be abolished?
I didn't know a single person, in my 44 years in prison, who ever thought about the prospect of being executed. There is no deterrent value. The death penalty only makes people who want someone dead feel good. It doesn't do anything for the crime problem.

Are you religious?
My experience with organised religion and its representatives has all been bad. But I'm a religious person. By any standard, I should have been dead a long time ago but I'm not. Nobody is that lucky. Nobody.

Was there a plan?
I'll never understand the things that have happened - how close I've come to the edges.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
I'd like to undo the crime I committed a long time ago. You don't sweat the small stuff; it's just the big stuff you've got to worry about.

Do you vote?
I can't vote. In Louisiana, ex-prisoners are only allowed to vote if they pay their court costs. They hit me with $127,000 to be allowed to vote. I have appealed.

Are we all doomed?
Ultimately, we're all going to hell in a hand­basket because of failed leadership - political, religious and civic. Frustrated and desperate people are dangerous. I realise that I'm not a saint: I'm a sinner and I'm not supposed to throw stones. But that's my observation.

Defining Moments

1942 Born in Louisiana
1961 Kills bank teller Julia Ferguson after taking her hostage in a robbery. Sentenced to death by an all-white, all-male jury
1973 Sentence changed to life imprisonment in Louisiana State Penitentiary, aka Angola
1976 Made co-editor of the Angolite, the only uncensored prison magazine in the US
2005 Freed after three retrials. Appeal court finds the first jury racially discriminatory
2010 Publishes memoir, In the Place of Justice.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt

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The secret anti-capitalist history of McDonald’s

As a new film focuses on the real founder of McDonald’s, his grandson reveals the unlikely story behind his family’s long-lost restaurant.

One afternoon in about the year 1988, an 11-year-old boy was eating at McDonald’s with his family in the city of Manchester, New Hampshire. During the meal, he noticed a plaque on the wall bearing a man’s face and declaring him the founder of McDonald’s. These plaques were prevalent in McDonald’s restaurants across the US at the time. The face – gleaming with pride – belonged to Ray Kroc, a businessman and former travelling salesman long hailed as the creator of the fast food franchise.

Flickr/Phillip Pessar

But this wasn’t the man the young boy munching on fries expected to see. That man was in the restaurant alongside him. “I looked at my grandfather and said, ‘But I thought you were the founder?’” he recalls. “And that’s when, in the late Eighties, early Nineties, my grandfather went back on the [McDonald’s] Corporation to set the history straight.”

Jason McDonald French, now a 40-year-old registered nurse with four children, is the grandson of Dick McDonald – the real founder of McDonald’s. When he turned to his grandfather as a confused child all those years ago, he spurred him on to correct decades of misinformation about the mysterious McDonald’s history. A story now being brought to mainstream attention by a new film, The Founder.


Jason McDonald French

“They [McDonald’s Corporation] seemed to forget where the name actually did come from,” says McDonald French, speaking on the phone from his home just outside Springfield, Massachusetts.

His grandfather Dick was one half of the McDonald brothers, an entrepreneurial duo of restaurateurs who started out with a standard drive-in hotdog stand in California, 1937.

Dick's father, an Irish immigrant, worked in a shoe factory in New Hampshire. He and his brother made their success from scratch. They founded a unique burger restaurant in San Bernardino, around 50 miles east of where they had been flogging hotdogs. It would become the first McDonald’s restaurant.

Most takeout restaurants back then were drive-ins, where you would park, order food from your car, and wait for a “carhop” server to bring you your meal on a plate, with cutlery. The McDonald brothers noticed that this was a slow, disorganised process with pointless costly overheads.

So they invented fast food.

***

In 1948, they built what came to be known as the “speedy system” for a fast food kitchen from scratch. Dick was the inventor out of the two brothers - as well as the bespoke kitchen design, he came up with both the iconic giant yellow “M” and its nickname, the “Golden Arches”.

“My grandfather was an innovator, a man ahead of his time,” McDonald French tells me. “For someone who was [only] high school-educated to come up with the ideas and have the foresight to see where the food service business was going, is pretty remarkable.”


The McDonald brothers with a milkshake machine.

McDonald French is still amazed at his grandfather’s contraptions. “He was inventing machines to do this automated system, just off-the-cuff,” he recalls. “They were using heat lamps to keep food warm beforehand, before anyone had ever thought of such a thing. They customised their grills to whip the grease away to cook the burgers more efficiently. It was six-feet-long, which was just unheard of.”

Dick even custom-made ketchup and mustard dispensers – like metal fireplace bellows – to speed up the process of garnishing each burger. The brothers’ system, which also cut out waiting staff and the cost of buying and washing crockery and cutlery, brought customers hamburgers from grill to counter in 30 seconds.


The McDonald brothers as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

McDonald French recounts a story of the McDonald brothers working late into the night, drafting and redrafting a blueprint for the perfect speedy kitchen in chalk on their tennis court for hours. By 3am, when they finally had it all mapped out, they went to bed – deciding to put it all to paper the next day. The dry, desert climate of San Bernardino meant it hadn’t rained in months.

 “And, of course, it rained that night in San Bernardino – washed it all away. And they had to redo it all over again,” chuckles McDonald French.

In another hiccup when starting out, a swarm of flies attracted by the light descended on an evening event they put on to drum up interest in their restaurant, driving customers away.


An original McDonald's restaurant, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

***

These turned out to be the least of their setbacks. As depicted in painful detail in John Lee Hancock’s film, Ray Kroc – then a milkshake machine salesman – took interest in their restaurant after they purchased six of his “multi-mixers”. It was then that the three men drew up a fateful contract. This signed Kroc as the franchising agent for McDonald’s, who was tasked with rolling out other McDonald’s restaurants (the McDonalds already had a handful of restaurants in their franchise). 

Kroc soon became frustrated at having little influence. He was bound by the McDonalds’ inflexibility and stubborn standards (they wouldn’t allow him to cut costs by purchasing powdered milkshake, for example). The film also suggests he was fed up with the lack of money he was making from the deal. In the end, he wriggled his way around the contract by setting up the property company “McDonald’s Corporation” and buying up the land on which the franchises were built.


Ray Kroc, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

Kroc ended up buying McDonald’s in 1961, for $2.7m. He gave the brothers $1m each and agreeing to an annual royalty of half a per cent, which the McDonald family says they never received.

“My father told us about the handshake deal [for a stake in the company] and how Kroc had gone back on his word. That was very upsetting to my grandfather, and he never publicly spoke about it,” McDonald French says. “It’s probably billions of dollars. But if my grandfather was never upset about it enough to go after the Corporation, why would we?”

They lost the rights to their own name, and had to rebrand their original restaurant “The Big M”. It was soon put out of business by a McDonald’s that sprang up close by.


An original McDonald restaurant in Arizona. Photo: Flickr/George

Soon after that meal when the 11-year-old Jason saw Kroc smiling down from the plaque for the first time, he learned the true story of what had happened to his grandfather. “It’s upsetting to hear that your family member was kind of duped,” he says. “But my grandfather always had a great respect for the McDonald’s Corporation as a whole. He never badmouthed the Corporation publicly, because he just wasn’t that type of man.”

Today, McDonalds' corporate website acknowledges the McDonalds brothers as the founders of the original restaurant, and credits Kroc with expanding the franchise. The McDonald’s Corporation was not involved with the making of The Founder, which outlines this story. I have contacted it for a response to this story, but it does not wish to comment.

***

Dick McDonald’s principles jar with the modern connotations of McDonald’s – now a garish symbol of global capitalism. The film shows Dick’s attention to the quality of the food, and commitment to ethics. In one scene, he refuses a lucrative deal to advertise Coca Cola in stores. “It’s a concept that goes beyond our core beliefs,” he rants. “It’s distasteful . . . crass commercialism.”

Kroc, enraged, curses going into business with “a beatnik”.


Photo: The Founder

Dick’s grandson agrees that McDonald’s has strayed from his family’s values. He talks of his grandfather’s generosity and desire to share his wealth – the McDonald brothers gave their restaurant to its employees, and when Dick returned to New Hampshire after the sale, he used some of the money to buy new Cadillacs with air conditioning for his old friends back home.

“[McDonald’s] is definitely a symbol of capitalism, and it definitely sometimes has a negative connotation in society,” McDonald French says. “If it was still under what my grandfather had started, I imagine it would be more like In'N'Out Burger [a fast food chain in the US known for its ethical standards] is now, where they pay their employees very well, where they stick to the simple menu and the quality.”

He adds: “I don’t think it would’ve ever blossomed into this, doing salads and everything else. It would’ve stayed simple, had quality products that were great all the time.

“I believe that he [my grandfather] wasn’t too unhappy that he wasn’t involved with it anymore.”


The McDonald’s Museum, Ray Kroc’s first franchised restaurant in the chain. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Despite his history, Dick still took his children and grandchildren to eat at McDonald’s together – “all the time” – as does Jason McDonald French with his own children now. He’s a cheeseburger enthusiast, while his seven-year-old youngest child loves the chicken nuggets. But there was always a supersize elephant in the room.

“My grandfather never really spoke of Ray Kroc,” he says. “That was always kind of a touchy subject. It wasn’t until years later that my father told us about how Kroc was not a very nice man. And it was the only one time I ever remember my grandfather talking about Kroc, when he said: ‘Boy, that guy really got me.’”

The Founder is in UK cinemas from today.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.