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Civil rights leader chastised for Wal-Mart ties

Critics hope Young will use PR role to sway retail giant

DECATUR, Ga. -- At the grand opening of a Wal-Mart in a black suburb of Atlanta, civil rights leader Andrew Young danced with store clerks, bouncing to the song ''We Are Family."

He also posed with a $1 million check from the company -- a donation for a memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to be built on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Young took part in the pep rally in his new position as a paid corporate cheerleader for Wal-Mart -- a role that has perplexed some of his longtime civil rights colleagues, who have all but accused him of going over to the enemy.

Activists for the poor have long contended that Wal-Mart skimps on wages and health benefits, forces employees to work off the clock, and kills mom-and-pop businesses.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, known as the dean of the civil rights movement, said Young -- the 74-year-old former Atlanta mayor and UN ambassador -- is acting as a ''lone wolf" in working for Wal-Mart. ''Maybe he knows something that other advocates for economic justice don't," Lowery said in a statement. ''Maybe we will see the corporate giant be born again and become a good corporate citizen."

Young, who as one of King's top lieutenants was a business liaison during the civil rights era, said that by working for the world's largest retailer, he hopes to increase jobs and open other doors for poor people. He defended his role as consistent with the ideals of the civil rights movement.

Young long ago left behind his protest days in favor of stumping for economic opportunity. As a two-term mayor in the 1980s, Young said he attracted more than a million jobs and $70 billion in private investment to the city.

Since 1997, he has headed GoodWorks International, which works with corporations and governments to foster economic development in Africa and the Caribbean. He and his company were hired last month to promote Wal-Mart at public appearances, in interviews, and in op-ed articles, said Kevin Sheridan, spokesman for Working Families for Wal-Mart, a group organized with backing from the company.

The group defends Wal-Mart Stores Inc. against attacks from critics.

''He obviously is a highly credible public face that brings a very high degree of respect to any debate that he involves himself with," Sheridan said. ''We take very seriously his advice and his counsel."

Last fall Wal-Mart announced steps to make health insurance more affordable for its employees.

''This is a case where Wal-Mart is hiring someone to make them look good, but this is someone who will try, through friendly persuasion, to get them to review some of what they're doing," said Margaret Simms, an economist for the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

She said that while the civil rights movement long concentrated on winning political power for blacks, ''many people in the civil rights movement view economic development as the next frontier."

This is not Young's first corporate job. He served for 10 years on the board of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines.

Charles Steele, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization King helped found, stopped short of criticizing Young.

''The perception is that Wal-Mart is really not a fair competitor in terms of the economy," Steele said. ''What I am hoping and anticipating is that he would open up the avenues of communication to civil rights organizations, to begin dialogue and bring about meaningful solutions to a very negative situation in terms of perception."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who also worked alongside King, reserved his criticism for the company, not his former comrade.

''It's his private choice. That's not a public policy issue," Jackson said, adding that the shift to a ''Wal-Mart economy" of part-time work without health insurance is bad for the country.

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