Associated Press

Dozens of faith leaders from across the country have signed a letter condemning former civil rights leader Andrew Young for representing Wal-Mart, saying his role with the company contradicts the philosophy of his close friend and comrade, Martin Luther King, Jr.

"It is imperative that those of us who worked closely with Dr. King and who have followed in his footsteps tread carefully as we ponder our actions when interacting with Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and taking into account its harmful effects in our communities," reads the letter, signed by nearly 60 members of various religious groups, including the United Church of Christ.

Young, himself a minister, was ordained under the denomination and is a lifelong member of the church. In a letter dated Tuesday addressed directly to the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, Young asks that he and the church "enter into a serious discussion about these issues and not just assume an outdated knee-jerk reaction" and defended his actions as consistent with a lifetime of working on behalf of the disadvantaged.

The letter was originally drafted last week and was not intended as a response to the faith leaders’ criticism. In the letter, Young said he and the United Church of Christ share similar ideas, and that the church should take another look at Wal-Mart’s more positive contributions to society.

"Our Churches sought to do the same through teaching preaching missions, social and political action. We have always been a leader in progressive movements in faith, action, government and mission," Young wrote. "But, I think we may have erred in not paying enough attention to the potentially positive role of business and the corporate multinational community in seeking solutions to the problems of the poor."

Young said it was wrong for the church and others to blame Wal-Mart for world ills and that the company "has addressed poverty more effectively than any other American institution."

Among those opposing his alliance with Wal-Mart in the letter from faith groups is the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who served alongside Young and King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the civil rights movement.

"I am disappointed that he has chosen to defend the wayward ways of Wal-Mart," Lowery is quoted as saying in the letter. "I thought that he was seeking to help them change and become a positive force, not to justify their negatives with ‘voodoo’ economic theories and excuse their practices which swell the ranks of the working poor here and abroad."

Young has come under fire recently from Lowery and others in the civil rights community after his company, GoodWorks International, was hired earlier this year by Working Families for Wal-Mart to promote the world’s largest retailer. Young’s company, which he has headed since 1997, works with corporations and governments to foster economic development in Africa and the Caribbean.

He has said his role in civil rights has changed from marching and protesting to championing economic opportunity. Before starting GoodWorks, Young was a two-term mayor of Atlanta, congressman and United Nations ambassador. He helped bring the 1996 Summer Olympic Games to Atlanta, along with millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.

In a statement, John Hope Bryant, chair of the Los Angeles-based economic advocacy group Operation HOPE, called Young his hero and a living legend and said some are attempting to diminish his accomplishments "because he decides to engage in a common sense conversation with the largest retailer in the world, the largest employer in America, and the largest employer for black folk in America."

"The fact of the matter is, he is doing here exactly as he has always done; become the voice of reason for folk who cannot seem to find common ground on their own," Bryant continued. "The time and tactics have changed, but the battle for social justice continues."

Young was not immediately available for comment, but GoodWorks spokeswoman Magdalene Womack said Tuesday afternoon the company had received the letter, which was faxed to GoodWorks offices in Atlanta, Washington and New York.

"We will address it in writing," Womack said.

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