Civil rights leader Andrew Young, who was hired to help Wal-Mart Stores Inc. improve its public image, said early Friday he was stepping down from his position as head of an outside support group amid criticism for remarks seen as racially offensive.
"I think I was on the verge of becoming part of the controversy, and I didn't want to become a distraction from the main issues, so I thought I ought to step down," Young, a former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador, told The Associated Press.
Young, once a close associate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said his decision to step down followed a report in the weekly Los Angeles Sentinel, which he said was misread and misinterpreted.
In the Sentinel interview, Young was asked about whether he was concerned Wal-Mart causes smaller, mom-and-pop stores to close.
"Well, I think they should; they ran the `mom and pop' stores out of my neighborhood," the paper quoted Young as saying. "But you see, those are the people who have been overcharging us selling us stale bread and bad meat and wilted vegetables. And they sold out and moved to Florida. I think they've ripped off our communities enough. First it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it's Arabs; very few black people own these stores."
Young, who has apologized for the remarks, said he decided to end his involvement with Working Families for Wal-Mart after he started getting calls about the story.
"Things that are matter-of-fact in Atlanta, in the New York and Los Angeles environment, tend to be a lot more volatile," he said.
He also said working with the group "was also taking more of my time than I thought."
An after-hours call to Wal-Mart was not immediately returned. Company spokeswoman Mona Williams told The New York Times on Thursday that Young's comments did not reflect Wal-Mart's views.
"Needless to say, we were appalled when the comments came to our attention," Williams said. "We were also dismayed that they would come from someone who has worked so hard for so many years for equal rights in this country."
The remarks surprised Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who pointed to Young's reputation of civil rights work.
"If anyone should know that these are the words of bigotry, anti-Semitism and prejudice, it's him," Hier said. "I know he apologized, but I would say this, ... during his years as a leader of the national civil rights movement, if anyone would utter remarks like this about African-Americans his voice would be the first to rise in indignation."
Young came under fire from the civil rights community after his company, GoodWorks International, was hired 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.
In an April letter to the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, Young said it was wrong for the church and others to blame Wal-Mart for world ills.
"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 wrote at that time.