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.
Young, an ordained minister, 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 complained that Wal-Mart skimps on wages and health benefits, forces employees to work off the clock, and kills off 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 U.N. 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.”
Defends his role with company
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 entirely consistent with the ideals of the civil rights movement.
“Civil rights leaders are involved in helping poor people,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been doing all my life.”
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 pieces, 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.
Mum on income
Sheridan would not disclose how much Young and his company are being paid; Young said he is not sure how much his company is getting.
“He obviously is a highly credible public face that brings very high degree of respect to any debate that he involves himself with,” Sheridan said. “We take very seriously his advice and his counsel. The career that he has had fighting for poor and working folks for his entire career has been the focus of almost everything he’s been involved with this group to date, and we continue to look for new avenues for him to speak out.”
Last fall, in another effort to change it ways, 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 black people, “many people in the civil rights movement view economic development as the next frontier.”
This not Young’s first corporate job. He served for 10 years on the board of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines and still makes public appearances on the company’s behalf. He also has Nike as client through GoodWorks, and in 1997 he came under fire from activists for issuing a report exonerating the shoe manufacturer of unfair labor practices in Vietnam.
Akinyele Umoja, a professor of black studies at Georgia State University, complained: “What he’s doing is providing credibility and legitimacy for some of these corporations that have policies that just reinforce inequality.”
Hugs and autographs
On Wednesday, Young hugged customers, signed autographs and posed for pictures with local dignitaries while singing Wal-Mart’s praises. He cut the ribbon at a store that replaces an abandoned Kmart that closed two decades ago in the mostly black neighborhood.
The new store has received more than 8,000 applicants for 500 jobs. Young said he expects new housing and more business to follow Wal-Mart’s lead and come to the suburban area that is home to some of the country’s most affluent blacks but has stagnated in attracting jobs.
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 negative comments 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.