The Ventura County chapter of the NAACP has called for blacks to stop patronizing Mervyn's Department Store after discovering that the chain published an advertising insert last December that contained a racial slur.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, a Mervyn's spokeswoman called the incident a "very unfortunate and unintentional oversight" and apologized on behalf of the department store chain. She said that Mervyn's received a number of complaints regarding the insert, a "White Sale" booklet that was sent to 4 million credit-card holders and inserted in newspapers throughout California, Georgia, Colorado and Washington.
The controversy focuses on a picture-frame advertisement on page 45 of the booklet that depicts a number of Victorian-era portraits. At the bottom right-hand corner of the page, a pair of eyeglasses sits on an aged copy of an open-faced book where the word "nigger" is visible. Mervyn's said the book is Mark Twain's classic "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
John R. Hatcher, president of the Ventura County chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said the ad showed "insensitivity toward the black community." He claimed the derogatory word was included intentionally as a racial joke in a booklet whose front page is headlined "White Sale".
The Rev. Jesse Taylor, a black minister, called the ad "an affront and an insult. We're pretty upset about this," he added.
County NAACP leaders said they became aware of the ad in late December after receiving several angry letters from local residents. The NAACP then wrote a letter to Mervyn's calling attention to the ad and asking for a response. Hatcher said that, one month later, the chapter received a reply that he deemed "unsatisfactory."
The letter, written by Mervyn's vice president of public affairs Sandra Salyer, explained that an outside photographer had selected the novel as a prop for the ad and that nobody at Mervyn's noticed the offending word before publication.
Mervyn's, which is based in Hayward, Calif., and owns 204 stores in 14 states, said it sent a similar letter to an NAACP chapter in the Bay Area after that agency also lodged a complaint.
"While the mistake is certainly distressing, it was not intentional on the part of the photographer or Mervyn's staff," Sayler explained in the letter to the Ventura County NAACP chapter.
At a press conference on Wednesday, NAACP members called the response a "dumb letter" and said Mervyn's had failed to make a public apology.
Hatcher said he plans to send letters to all of the California offices of the NAACP alerting them to the issue and urging that their members stop patronizing Mervyn's. He said that some local ministers will also carry this message from their pulpits.
Hatcher said that the NAACP is also considering filing a lawsuit for money damages, and that it may request that Mervyn's promote more blacks to positions of management, hire a black publisher to print its advertising booklets and provide greater support to local black communities.
Sayler said that Mervyn's has a strong program of hiring, retaining and promoting minorities, and that it does contract with minority-owned firms.