In celebration of Black History Month, we are running a special series of “History Shakers,” people who have taken strides to shake up the status quo and make their mark, often paving the way for others to follow. Larry Thornton, one of Coca-Cola UNITED’s own Board of Directors sets a very high bar as the first in this series and has been the first African American to do many things. He was the first to own a McDonald’s franchise in Birmingham, the first to serve on our board of directors, and the first to be named board president for The Club, a unique private club on Red Mountain, established in 1951. Thornton has often found himself in places where he was the first African American to be there, but he was determined not to be the last.
Thornton even wrote a book about his journey, to inspire and help others make their own mark, called “Why Not Win?: Reflections on a 50-Year Journey from America’s Segregated South to America’s Boardrooms — and What It Can Teach Us All.” The book traces his path from his early days dealing with student integration in Montgomery schools to the “wins” that helped him to eventually integrate the board rooms of major corporations. Thornton shares lessons learned along the way, such as the importance of relationships, self-awareness, and relentless determination.
“There were some unique personal disciplines and processes of thinking that led to such accomplishments, so I simply wanted to chronicle those for the most part for my family,” Thornton said. “I never wanted a granddaughter or a niece or a nephew to ever wonder what led to being the first.”
Thornton also started the Why Not Win? Institute with the help of Zillah Fluker, who is the executive director. The institute offers professional development workshops on communication skills, time management, personal responsibility and accountability, which have also been taken to several colleges and universities including the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Alabama State University, Alabama Agriculture & Mechanical University, Auburn University, Texas Agriculture & Mechanical University, Clemson University, and Fisk University, as well as members of the Kiwanis Club of Birmingham and executives at Regions Bank, Alabama Power, and Coca-Cola UNITED.
“Our goal is to showcase the stories of the book but really help people realize it’s just a few minor adjustments and tweaks that could really reposition your entire trajectory,” Thornton said.
After getting an art degree from Alabama State University, Thornton became an art teacher but was left without a job after state budget cuts. He eventually got hired by Coca-Cola to paint signs, making only $5 an hour, but was soon promoted to advertising manager. Later he was invited to take advantage of a partnership between Coca-Cola UNITED and McDonald’s, which led to opening his McDonald’s franchise. Ultimately, Thornton found himself sitting on Coca-Cola UNITED’s board of directors.
Thornton said that being first means, “having a deeper sense of appreciation for all of those who have gone on before you who made significant sacrifices, sometimes the ultimate sacrifice, for you to be the first. You understand well what you’re doing and the why of it all. You may have family members who can’t necessarily understand your drive, your passion because they don’t necessarily buy into the why.”
Larry Thornton, today we celebrate YOU.