Claim:  The restaurant chain Cracker Barrel officially segregated patrons until 2004.

MIXTURE

WHAT’S TRUE: In 2004, the Justice Department “announced the filing and settlement” of a racial discrimination lawsuit against Cracker Barrel after they found evidence of discriminatory practices based on race “in approximately 50 different Cracker Barrel restaurants in seven states.”

WHAT’S FALSE: Cracker Barrel “officially” segregated black patrons from white patrons until 2004, the company lost (rather than settled) a lawsuit over segregation practices.

Example: [Collected via e-mail and Reddit, November 2015]

TIL that the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain practiced segregation until 2004, when the U.S. Justice Department forced them to stop.

cracker barrel segregation 2004

Origins:  Social media users’ tendency to newly “learn” tidbits of information that have been widely available for many years creates a breeding ground for immortal (and often poorly understood) rumors, as is the case with a persistent belief that the Cracker Barrel chain of restaurant and gift stores officially segregated its customers by race until 2004 (when they were finally ordered to stop doing so by the U.S. Justice Department).

The idea a prominent chain such as Cracker Barrel might have been illegally practicing segregation right under our noses until fairly recently sounds barely plausible, yet the certainty with the claim is repeated lends it credibility. But did Cracker Barrel really segregate their customers until as late as 2004?

On 14 December 2001, the Athens Banner-Herald published an article reporting on a planned $100 million lawsuit against the Cracker Barrel chain over charges of racial discrimination:

Twenty-one people planned to file a $100 million federal lawsuit against Cracker Barrel restaurants, accusing the nationwide chain of widespread racism, from segregating black customers in the smoking section to denying them service. The suit, to be filed in federal court in Rome, Ga., accuses Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc. of systematic discrimination and documents acts of alleged racism in 175 cities in 30 states.

Much of the lawsuit focuses on the statements of black customers, recounting how they were forced to wait while white customers were promptly seated.

In one such case, Chandra Harmon, a resident of Smyrna, Ga., says she arrived at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Chattanooga, Tenn., at 9:48 p.m. and was told by a server that the restaurant was about to close. At 10 p.m., Harmon watched as four white men were allowed into the restaurant. Through the window, she saw them eating and drinking. Later, the manager insisted the men were seated before Harmon arrived.

The lawsuit also draws upon the statements of Judith Robertson, a former executive coordinator at Cracker Barrel’s headquarters in Lebanon, Tenn. Robertson, who is white, was responsible for responding to complaints made by customers on the company’s hot line. In a statement, Robertson says the company received 300 calls describing discrimination against minority customers, many more than received by other customers. She said those calls were often discussed, and then dismissed casually, by Cracker Barrel managers.

In October 2002, the Nashville Postpublished an article reporting that the plaintiffs in the proposed lawsuit had failed to prove a “common set of circumstances” which would warrant the granting of class-action status that would allow them to bundle all their claims into a single case:

Federal Judge Harold Murphy of the Northern District of Georgia has ruled that the plaintiffs failed to prove that a common set of circumstances existed to justify a national class-action lawsuit. Without a class-action certification, plaintiffs would have to pursue their claims individually.

Plaintiffs attorney David Sanford in the Washington, D.C. office of Gordon, Silberman, Wiggins & Childs [said] that “nothing in the ruling affects the merits of the claims.” The decision whether or not to take the matter to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals or to pursue another strategy “will be made in weeks, not months,” Sanford said. “This is just the start. We’re confident we will prevail.”

On 3 May 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice announced both the filing and the settlement of a lawsuit alleging Cracker Barrel had discriminated against black customers:

The Department of Justice today announced the filing and settlement of a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination against African-American customers by Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc., a nationwide family restaurant chain. In the agreement, memorialized in a consent order filed with the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Cracker Barrel commits to implementing far reaching changes to policies and practices, to prevent discrimination.

The Justice Department’s complaint alleges that Cracker Barrel violated Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by engaging in a pattern or practice of discrimination against African-American customers and prospective customers on the basis of their race or color. The Justice Department’s investigation revealed evidence of such conduct in approximately 50 different Cracker Barrel restaurants in seven states: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. The Justice Department’s investigation included interviews with approximately 150 persons, mostly former Cracker Barrel employees, of whom 80 percent stated that they experienced or witnessed discriminatory treatment of customers at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. The investigation suggested that managers often directed, participated in, or condoned the discriminatory behavior.

Filed with the complaint today in federal court was a jointly filed consent order resolving the allegations. Under the consent order, which remains subject to court approval and which covers Cracker Barrel restaurants nationwide, Cracker Barrel will hire an outside auditor to ensure compliance with its terms.

Among practices cited in the Justice Department’s suit against Cracker Barrel were that the chain “allowed white servers to refuse to wait on African-American customers,” “segregated customer seating by race,” “seated white customers before African-American customers who arrived earlier,” “provided inferior service to African-American customers after they were seated,” and “treated African-Americans who complained about the quality of Cracker Barrel’s food or service less favorably than white customers who lodged similar complaints.” The allegations ranged in their level of objectivity: while physical racial segregation was more detectable, “inferior service” was a harder nut to crack in an evidentiary sense. The DoJ release also didn’t quantify the respective prevalence of each complaint (i.e., did a larger number of complainants report they experienced unfair seating practices or allege they received inferior service?).

As the portion of the statement excerpted above explained, Cracker Barrel settled a suit alleging racial discrimination in 50 restaurants across seven states. The suit was settled in part by implementation of policies and practices to “prevent discrimination.” Moreover, the complaint and settlement were filed jointly: the Justice Department “found evidence” of persistent discriminatory practices among individual employees and at specific restaurants, and Cracker Barrel agreed to take steps to prevent that from occurring or persisting.

On 9 September 2004, a Fox News article clarified that the chain had admitted no wrongdoing in their settlement with the Justice Department. An earlier civil suit filed or supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was likewise settled out of court, meaning that the chain opted not to litigate the claims:

Cracker Barrel has agreed to an $8.7 million settlement to resolve all lawsuits brought or supported by the NAACP that accused the restaurant chain of segregating blacks in the smoking section and denying them service.

“This matter has been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction and the parties are now ready to move forward,” Donald Turner, the chain’s president and chief operating officer, said Thursday. “Cracker Barrel is very pleased with this settlement.”

David Sanford, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the settlement “represents good closure to a bad period.”

At the time [of the Justice Department settlement], Cracker Barrel agreed to a number of operational changes but did not acknowledge any wrongdoing and paid no fines or penalties.

It’s true that civil complainants (including plaintiffs supported by the NAACP) sued Cracker Barrel for discrimination in 2001. It’s similarly true that the chain settled a suit with the Justice Department over the same form of complaints in 2004 and the previously filed civil suit later that year. However, both cases were settled (not tried), and charges of “segregation” were only one of several complaints alleging a lower standard of service for black customers. It’s not entirely accurate to say the chain “practiced segregation” until the Justice Department “forced them to stop” in 2004, as parties to both civil and federal cases settled the suits out of court based on freely-reached agreements.

Last updated: 10 November 2015

Originally published: 10 November 2015