On Monday, civil rights leaders gathered in a small, crowded room inside the Southern Christian Leadership Conference building in downtown Los Angeles to denounce Wal-Mart’s media tactics following Andrew Young’s resignation as a representative of the world’s largest retailer.

The press conference was organized by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy to “keep the focus on Wal-Mart … and not allow [Andrew Young’s resignation] to hide the real problem: Wal-Mart,” said Daniel Tabor, a community organizer with LAANE.

Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta and a celebrated civil rights leader who was a close confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was nabbed by Wal-Mart, in what was considered a coup for the company in 2005, to lead its corporate-funded PR campaign, Working Families for Wal-Mart. According to its website, which is heavy with testimonials from church leaders, the group’s mission is: “committed to fostering open and honest dialogue with elected officials, opinion makers and community leaders that conveys the positive contributions of Wal-Mart to working families.” In short, corporate advertising for Wal-Mart, aimed squarely at black and other minority communities.

Last Thursday, Young resigned after controversy broke out when he was asked whether it was right that Wal-Mart ran many mom-and-pop stores out of business, to which he replied: “Well, I think they should … . First it was the Jews, then it was the Koreans, and now it’s the Arabs, very few black people own these stores.”

In recent years, the City of Inglewood has voted down a new Wal-Mart store, citing concerns for, in part, local black-owned businesses. After the Inglewood City Council voted against the new store, the company made an unprecedented attempt to bypass the council by taking the matter to the people, where it was trounced.

Young’s close friend John Hope Bryant, who is the founder and chairman of Operation Hope, a civil rights organization, says Young truly believed he was helping poor communities. “If Dr. King was alive today he would be doing the same thing [as Andrew Young],” says Bryant.

Even those critical of Young admit that his comments were probably not intended to be racist. “If you take race out of the equation, it is true that many mom-and-pop stores in poorer communities do charge more for bread and other basic items,” says Tabor. “That doesn’t mean Wal-Mart is good for communities.”

Bryant says that Young welcomes criticism and an open-air debate. However, he thinks many in the media and in civil rights circles have made the issue personal, saying, “With all due respect to the civil rights leaders at the press conference, they do not have any experience with business. Business is not evil. While they’re holding press conferences, people like Andrew Young are out there trying to come up with real solutions.”

–David Davin

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