ATLANTA — When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to present the case for civil rights to the white establishment, he turned to Andrew Young.
Forty years later, Young, a silver-tongued civil rights leader who represented striking sanitation workers in Tennessee and helped draft the Civil Rights Act of 1964, has been recruited to promote Wal-Mart as a company that serves the poor.
Young announced last month that he would be chairman of the national steering committee for Working Families for Wal-Mart -- a new group funded by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to counter criticism of the company's treatment of employees and effect on local communities.
Young sees his new role -- which involves making public appearances and writing opinion pieces in support of Wal-Mart -- as consistent with his life's work.
"All my life I have tried to fight poverty," he said in a telephone interview from New York. "Jesus told us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and heal the sick. Well, Wal-Mart is feeding the hungry good fresh food."
Although some African American activists have long complained that Wal-Mart pays low wages, offers inadequate health insurance and has a poor record of promoting minorities, many business-oriented leaders think Wal-Mart could play a significant role in revitalizing impoverished inner cities by providing inexpensive goods and new jobs.
Young himself would like to see a Wal-Mart in every poor urban community.
"To have a Wal-Mart in your neighborhood means you can live a middle-class lifestyle," he said. "Wal-Mart has done extremely well in small rural towns, but the most lucrative market is the inner city. It is a trillion-dollar economy and it is definitely underserved."
Wal-Mart has more than 3,900 stores across America, many in suburban and rural areas, but its shares have fallen more than 10% over the last year amid concerns about slower growth and labor issues.
Minorities are a huge part of the urban market, said Jeffrey Matthew Humphreys, director of the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia, who published a recent report showing that African American buying power in the U.S. has increased from $318 billion to $760 billion in the last 15 years.
In two weeks, Wal-Mart will open its first store inside the freeway loop that surrounds Atlanta and distinguishes the city from the suburbs. The Gresham Road store is in a struggling, predominantly African American community not far from gentrifying neighborhoods.
"We're trusting and hoping that Wal-Mart revitalizes the area," said James McWhorter, church administrator of the Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church, which acted as a pre-hiring center for the new store. Nearly 5,000 people applied for 450 jobs.
Yet many communities here -- including Andrew Young's own affluent neighborhood in southwest Atlanta -- oppose Wal-Mart's plans to move into their areas, complaining that the huge stores will bring traffic, noise and crime.
Although Young admits he would prefer Wal-Mart to build a store farther from his home because of congestion, he believes that Wal-Mart can have a positive role in most urban neighborhoods, and there are other African American leaders sympathetic to his view.
Joseph Beasley, the Southern regional director for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, said many mom-and-pop stores had taken advantage of poor African Americans.
"Many residents would love to have a Wal-Mart come in," said Beasley, who works in a poor northwest Atlanta community where, he said, small stores often charge high prices for spoiling meat and vegetables and impose 2% fees for cashing checks.
But Wal-Mart critics cautioned against welcoming the stores simply because residents wanted one in their neighborhoods.
"One of the things my generation has a problem with is that we silence and mute social justice for the sake of sponsorship of a chicken dinner," said the Rev. Markel Hutchins, 28, associate pastor at Philadelphia Baptist Church in Atlanta. "We should not forget that Wal-Mart makes its money off the backs of those whom we serve."
Yet others credit Wal-Mart with making attempts to improve its business practices.
Last year, Black Enterprise magazine listed Wal-Mart as one of its "30 Best Companies for Diversity," based on the basis of what it called significant representation of blacks and other minorities.
After opening a new diversity office in 2003, Wal-Mart announced that executive bonuses would be cut if women and minorities were not promoted in proportion to the number who applied for management positions.
Still, Young's defense of Wal-Mart shocked the company's critics.
Paul Blank, campaign director for WakeUpWalMart.com, a 150,000-member group backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, suggested that Young serve the poor by helping to make Wal-Mart a better company.
"Wal-Mart is creating a permanent underclass," he said. "It's in direct contrast to the ideals of economic and social justice in America.