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Selling Civil Rights

Andy, say it isn’t so! Tell us you didn’t sell your legacy for a pot of pottage! I simply cannot believe that you, who had walked with Martin Luther King, who had fought for justice, who had defended the marginalized, could possibly sell out not only to corporate America, but by far, one of the most abusive corporate entities.

On the close of Black History Month, the Rev. Andrew Young, former <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Atlanta mayor, former three-term congressman and former U.N. ambassador, announced that he will be the public spokesperson for a group whose mission is to defend Wal-Mart. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Wal-Mart! The largest retail operation in the United States, which has several class action suits against it for discriminating against women and minorities. Wal-Mart, who faces legal difficulties for violating child labor laws. Wal-Mart, which passes on its employee’s health costs to the government. Wal-Mart, who ruthlessly crushes any and all attempts of its employees to unionize. Wal-Mart, whose low wages are responsible for the nationwide drop in poor people salaries. That Wal-Mart.
 
Young will head an organization created and funded by Wal-Mart called “Working Families for Wal-Mart.” His mission: to defend the corporate giant from the ever increasing criticism of its immoral and unethical daily business practices.
 
In an op-ed column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this past Monday, Young declared that he became involved in defending Wal-Mart because of his concern for the poor.
 
He sees Wal-Mart as the great hope for America’s poor, writing: “I have committed my life to helping the poor, and I believe that if more companies followed Wal-Mart’s lead in providing opportunity and savings to those who need it most, more Americans battling poverty would realize the American dream…. For those who care about the poor, it is time to step up, speak out and join this national discussion.”
 
Yet for many economists, Wal-Mart is seen as a major contributor to keeping the nation’s poor in poverty. Although Young claims he is not being paid, and technically he may be right, Wal-Mart is still a client of his company GoodWorks International. Both Young and Wal-Mart have refused to disclose how much money it is paying Andrew Young’s company. I’m sure it’s enough to turn Young, a former union organizer, to the major defender of the nation’s largest union buster.
 
This is not the first time Young is hired to use his civil-rights reputation and prestige to whitewash corporate abuses. Among his company’s first clients was Nike, who in 1997 was embroiled in a public-relations nightmare. Public outrage was mounting over the corporate practice of hiring Asian children to work for as long as 65 hours a week for $10.
 
Nike’s CEO hired Young’s firm to inspect their Asian factories to discover if any abuses were indeed occurring. After touring Nike’s plants, Young’s firm produced a 75-page report declaring that there was no evidence or pattern of abuse or mistreatment of workers. He even took pictures of happy-go-lucky smiling Asians working and playing at the plan, which was included in his report.
 
Young repaired Nike’s reputation, even though shortly after Young’s visit, auditors from another firm found unsafe and inhumane conditions at the same plants Young visited.
 
GoodWorks International became a PR dream for corporate entities who abuse the wretched of the earth. What better way to cover corporate abuses then to have a former civil-rights leader do the covering-up for you? It is a sad day when the legacy of fighting injustices is exchanged for 30 pieces of silver.
 
Miguel A. De La Torre is director of the Justice & Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
 
Order Miguel De La Torre’s book Reading the Bible from the Margins now from Amazon.com