Civil rights activist in racist tirade against shopkeepers

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The Independent US

A veteran civil rights activist who served as America's first black ambassador to the United Nations has become embroiled in an unlikely controversy after making a string of racist comments during a newspaper interview.

Andrew Young, 74, also a former mayor of Atlanta, was forced to step down as an adviser to Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, after making the comments, in which he said that Jewish, Korean and Arab storekeepers had "ripped off" black communities.

In the interview with the Los Angeles Sentinel, Mr Young was asked if he was concerned whether Wal-Mart's dominance in the United States was destroying its competition and putting smaller stores out of business - an accusation that has long been directed at the retail giant that accounts for 20 per cent of US grocery sales.

Mr Young replied: "Well, I think they should. They ran the 'mom and pop' stores out of my neighbourhood. 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."

On Thursday, the day the interview appeared, Mr Young announced that he was stepping down from his position as head of Working Families for Wal-Mart, a position he has held since February when - with no small amount of controversy - he was hired to help the company improve its image. Mr Young said he had stepped down because the controversy was detracting from the work he was hired to do.

During the 1960s Mr Young was at the centre of the civil rights movement and the effort to register black voters. He was a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and was arrested and jailed several times for participating in some of the seminal protests of the movement, including demonstrations in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama.

In 1964 he was named leader of the SCLC and become a senior adviser to Dr Martin Luther King. He was with King in 1968 when he was assassinated at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

In a statement, Mr Young said: "I recently made some comments about former storeowners in my neighbourhood that were completely and utterly inappropriate. Those comments run contrary to everything I have dedicated my life to. I apologise for those comments. I retract those comments. And I ask for the forgiveness of those I have offended." However, in other interviews he claimed the comments he had made were "matter-of-fact in Atlanta" but that elsewhere were considered more "volatile".

In its own statement, Wal-Mart said: "Mr Young's comments do not represent our feelings toward the Jewish, Asian or Arab communities or any diverse community. Needless to say, we were outraged when the comments came to our attention. 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."

Mr Young was also criticised by anti-racism campaigners. The national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, told The New York Times that Mr Young's comments were "very hurtful". He added: "The sad part is that even people of colour and even minorities who suffered discrimination are not immune from being bigoted and racist and even anti-Semitic."

Rise and fall

* A leading member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Andrew Young was at the centre of the civil rights movement during the 1960s. He was with Martin Luther King in 1968 when he was assassinated.

* Following his role in the civil rights movement, Mr Young was elected to Congress from Georgia in 1970.

* Appointed as ambassador to the UN in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter, his career as a diplomat ended after he met a representative from the Palestine Liberation Organisation, in contravention of US policy.

* In 1981 he was elected as mayor of Atlanta and re-elected four years later. He played an important role in securing the Olympic Games, which were hosted by the city in 1996.