ATLANTA, Aug. 18 — Andrew Young built his fame as the first lieutenant of the civil rights movement, working closely with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and becoming the first black congressman from Georgia since Reconstruction.
A street here is named after him, as is a school of public policy. And there are plans to erect a statue in his honor. So vast is his reservoir of good will, apparently, that even a racially inflammatory comment he made this week seemed unlikely to draw it down.
Instead, people who have known Mr. Young for decades seem rather satisfied that his comment that Jewish, Arab and Korean store owners had “ripped off” black neighborhoods, “selling us stale bread and bad meat and wilted vegetables” had severed his link with his most high-profile client, Wal-Mart Stores, in whose defense he made the remark.
Referring to the remarks as being singled out from a long interview, Mr. Young said Friday in a telephone interview, “I thought this was kind of below the belt.”
“Now I don’t blame anybody,” he said, a day after apologizing for his remarks and resigning from the Wal-Mart payroll. “It was stupid of me to say in that context. No, it wasn’t stupid of me. I said it in the appropriate context. But I didn’t think about how it would read.”
His remarks drew ire from Jewish groups and advocates of diversity, dismay from Wal-Mart executives and a slap from the Rev. Al Sharpton.
But in Atlanta, the comments became an occasion to debate the focus of the civil rights movement and the fidelity of Mr. Young, now 74, to its ideals.
“My guess is that Andy was trying so hard to run a good race on a questionable horse that he stumbled off track with his unfortunate remarks,” said the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, a longtime associate of Mr. Young.
Tom Houck, an Atlantan who worked for the King family, said, “I talked to him today and I said, ‘Andy, you sleep with snakes, you’re going to get bitten by them.’ ”
Mr. Young made his comment to a reporter from a black newspaper, The Los Angeles Sentinel, responding to a question about Wal-Mart’s effects on mom-and-pop businesses.
“I was giving a rational explanation of a historic phenomenon,” he explained later. “Can you talk about ethnicity objectively without it being demeaning or stereotypical?”
He added that he had also discussed black merchants who overcharged the poor.
“The way this came out it makes me sound like I’m refuting everything I’ve done over almost 70 years, frankly,” Mr. Young said.
He defended his work, saying, “I still think that Wal-Mart is good for poor people.”
Critics, many also his friends, disagreed. When Wal-Mart asked Mr. Young to become the public face of a new group called Working Families for Wal-Mart that would promote the company and rebut its union critics, an open letter signed by 57 people, mostly clergy members, accused him of siding with the “filthy rich” and “taking a stand that is diametrically opposed to everything Dr. King stood for.”
Vernon Jones, one of a younger generation of black politicians who is chief executive officer of DeKalb County, Ga., home to the newest Wal-Mart store in the Atlanta region, said the company had created jobs and revitalized neighborhoods.
“No one can question the fact that Andy Young is for the little person,” Mr. Jones said. “He’s more for the little person than anyone I know.”
In the liberal milieu of the civil rights movement, Mr. Young was never a purist. “Dr. King used to say, ‘You know now Andy is my favorite Republican,’ ” Mr. Houck recalled.
When Mr. Young became mayor in 1982, he told the city’s white business community, “I can win without you, but I can’t govern without you.”
He was never predictable. In 1979, he had to resign as ambassador to the United Nations after meeting a representative of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, a move that supporters now say was indicative of his willingness to listen to all sides.
He traveled to Africa for the Clinton administration and praised the Bush administration for its emphasis on “commerce as the engine for change and prosperity” there. But he has also been criticized for a close relationship with African dictators.
In the recent Georgia primaries, Mr. Young endorsed the controversial and doggedly left-wing Representative Cynthia McKinney, who lost in a runoff.
Wal-Mart is not the first corporate client for which he has drawn criticism. In 1996, he was paid by Nike to inspect their overseas factories. He largely gave them a pass, helping Nike overcome criticism that it ran exploitative sweatshops.
Mr. Young’s critics say there is no better evidence for saying he has morphed from populist to corporate mouthpiece than his relationship with Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart took an interest in Mr. Young in February 2005 when he praised it at one of its Saturday morning meetings that frequently feature politicians and celebrities.
Mona Williams, a company spokeswoman, said that during Black History Month, Mr. Young told executives that “Wal-Mart had done more for poor people than any other institution in this country.”
But civil rights advocates criticize the company record. By its admission, the retailer has been slow to diversify senior ranks, turning recently to reducing bonuses unless executives improve promotions of women and minorities. The company is also the subject of the largest sex-discrimination lawsuit.
Since Mr. Young joined it, the company announced many changes, saying it would expand health insurance to the children of part-time workers, commit to sweeping reductions in energy use and promise to support small businesses, including competitors, near its proposed urban stores.
Some defe nders said Mr. Young’s remark was unfortunately worded, but had a grain of truth.
“In his opinion,” said John Hope Bryant, the founder of Operation Hope, which fights urban poverty, “companies like Wal-Mart had simply introduced some much needed competition in our inner-city communities, helping to level the playing field for poor people.’’