Al Copeland may not have done the most to benefit humanity, but he certainly did more than many people who receive such awards. Chicago gave Bill Ayers their Citizen of the Year award in 1997. And the Nobel Peace Prize has too often gone to a motley crew including unrepentant terrorist, Yassir Arafat, and fictional autobiography writer, Rigoberta Menchu. Local humanitarian awards tend to go to hack politicians or community activists. From all these award recipients you might think that a humanitarian was someone who stopped throwing bombs (sort of like the pleasure of stopping to hit yourself in the head) or who you hoped would picket, tax, regulate, or imprison someone else.
Al Copeland never threatened to bomb, picket, tax, regulate, or imprison anyone. By that standard alone he would be much more of a humanitarian. But Al Copeland did even more — he gave us spicy chicken. You see, Al Copeland was the founder of the Popeyes Chicken chain. Copeland was a humanitarian because he developed a product that people really wanted and voluntarily paid for. The Dr. John jingle says it best — “Love that chicken from Popeyes!”
By developing a product that people enjoyed, Copeland was able to build a chain of restaurants that served millions of customers while employing tens of thousands over his career. Making products that people want and giving people opportunities for employment isn’t just a good strategy for making a profit, it’s also a morally desirable activity.
I’ve intentionally selected the founder of something as mundane as a spicy chicken restaurant chain to make this point. The entrepreneur doesn’t just benefit himself. He or she also benefits humanity. Making new and better things improves the human condition. Even spicy chicken makes life better.
It’s true that the entrepreneur also benefits from making something new or better, but that in no way diminishes from his or her contribution to humanity. Life is not a zero-sum game in which one person’s improvement necessarily comes at the expense of someone else. When the entrepreneur succeeds, customers enjoy a good product, employees enjoy their wages, and the entrepreneur enjoys a profit. The invention of something new or better allows everyone to win.
Al Copeland didn’t always win. When his company acquired Church’s Chicken, they bit off more than they could handle and had to enter bankruptcy. But bankruptcy doesn’t mean that you put assets in a big pile and blow them up. Popeye’s restructured and continues to operate, so we continue to enjoy the legacy of Al Copeland’s creation.
Al Copeland enjoyed his legacy as well. He spent his fortune on a fleet of racing boats and cars. He decorated his Louisiana mansion with such an elaborate Christmas display that it attracted thousands of visitors as well as a lawsuit from neighbors. Undeterred by the failure of his first two marriages, Copeland married a third time in a lavish ceremony complete with a fireworks display. The man lived large.
The fact that he sometimes failed in business, failed in his personal relationships, and often spent his money on frivolous pleasures still does not prevent him from being more of a humanitarian than many who receive such awards. No matter how he failed or wasted, he still developed something that improved people’s lives.
And let’s remember that the more typical recipients of humanitarian awards are not completely selfless. Even if they don’t have money squirreled away in Swiss bank accounts like Yassir Arafat, or ego-gratifying constant attention like Bill Ayers, they usually receive some sort of compensation for their actions. Being rewarded in no way diminishes their accomplishments any more than it does the entrepreneur. The only question is whether they really do things that help humanity — even with something as mundane as spicy chicken.
Al Copeland passed away this year from a rare form of cancer. As flawed as he was (and aren’t we all) he was a great humanitarian.