ATLANTA – Civil rights leader Andrew Young, who was hired to help Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) improve its public image, said early Friday he stepped down from his position as head of an outside support group.
The move comes on the heels of comments Young made to a newspaper that many felt were 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 came after a report in the Los Angeles Sentinel, which he said was misread and misinterpreted.
In an interview, Young was asked whether he was concerned that 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 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 said working with the group also was "taking more of my time than I thought."
Chris Kofinis, communications director for WakeUpWalMart.com, said Young made the appropriate decision in stepping down. But Kofinis said Young's comments still raised questions about the purpose of Working Families for Wal-Mart, which he said has attacked those who criticize the retail giant.
The Jewish community criticized Young's comments.
"Andrew Young is a nationally known civil rights leader. If anyone should know that these are the words of bigotry, anti-Semitism and prejudice, it's him," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "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 the time.