This year’s nominations are now open for the prestigious Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year award!
This is a tradition I have delighted to participate in for several years now. As many of you know, I also blog at Jay P. Greene’s Blog, one of the nation’s leading blogs on education policy. Back in 2008, reports circulated that in 1997 Chicago had given its Citizen of the Year Award to domestic terrorist Bill Ayers. Jay decided to respond by naming Al Copeland, the founder of Popeye’s Chicken, as his blog’s Humanitarian of the Year:
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.
The next year, Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Jay decided to rename his prize the Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year Award and throw open nominations to anyone who wanted to send them in. That year, I nominated Ralph Teetor, the inventor of cruise control. In spite of his truly amazing life story, Ralph lost to Debrilla Ratchford, inventor of the rolling suitcase. The lineup of nominees that year included Steve Henson, inventor of ranch dressing, and Fasi Zaka, a Pakistani talk show host who makes fun of the Taliban.
In 2010, I succeeded in nominating my first and only winner of “The Al”: Wim Nottroth, a heroic television journalist in the Netherlands who was arrested for an act of civil disobedience protesting the forcible destruction of a mural on private property. The mural read “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and was put up in the wake of the murder of Theo van Gogh. I also nominated Marion Donovan and Victor Mills, who invented the disposable diaper. Another nominee that year, equally heroic and entertaining, was Herbert Dow, who used ingenuity and good old fashioned American guts to destroy European chemical cartels.
Last year’s winner was Earle Haas, inventor of the tampon, for his contribution to the liberation of women. My nominee that year, in reaction against an alarming court decision denying that people have a fundamental right to own or consume what they wish, was Charles Montesquieu.
One more entertaining note: I am responsible for the only person ever to be disqualified from winning The Al: William Higginbotham, inventor of the video game. He was deemed unworthy to recieve The Al because he believed that his advocacy for nuclear non-proliferation was more important than his having invented the video game. As I wrote at the time: “That’s a stick in the eye to everything the Al Copeland award stands for.”
The nominations for The Al have become some of the best material we post on Jay P. Greene’s Blog. We get to tell funny and inspiring stories, and contemplate what it truly means to improve the human condition. Celebrating the accomplishments of people who make the world a better place but are overlooked by other awards is one of the most fun and at the same time most edifying things I think we can do.
By tradition, nominations for The Al are opened each year when the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded, and the winner is announced on the weekday closest to Halloween (that holidy having been deemed representative of the “spirit,” so to speak, of The Al). So keep your eyes on Jay’s blog this month, and consider sending in your own nomination!