Saint Al

Will he die in prison for the sins of the plantation?

The second thing was that Lipscomb's version of mongering was never far removed from white purse-strings. Two years ago, Lipscomb told Laura Miller, then of the Observer, that one of his main white benefactors, Pete Schenkel of Schepps Dairy, even paid for the produce truck.

Al Lipscomb would not talk to the Observer for this story. Diane Ragsdale called to explain that he could not talk to a reporter because of his legal situation. In February, Lipscomb had received a "target letter" informing him that he was the object of a federal probe. He did not know yet whether he would be indicted.

But a number of people who have known him well over the years, including Ragsdale, did agree to help the Observer create a portrait of him.

One of the themes most often repeated by his friends was the deep personal pain caused Lipscomb by the stubborn refusal of the black middle-class establishment in Dallas to grant him respect for his years of service.

"Particularly in the African-American community, this city is very cruel to those who fought the good fight," says activist Marvin Crenshaw, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that produced the current 14-1 city council system.

Crenshaw told of a glittering affair in 1993, a year before S.M. Wright's death from cancer, when the upscale segment of the Dallas black community hosted Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, a native son of Dallas. Wright sat beaming proudly on the dais with Jackson. The city's white mayor was also at the table. But when Lipscomb and then-Councilwoman Ragsdale arrived, they found that they had been left to sit at a distant table.

Lipscomb, saying he was angered by the insult to his wife, walked out.
"They did it to Diane all the time too," says Sandra Crenshaw. "The black socialites, when they had their big affairs, they wanted [former Mayor Annette Strauss] up there because she had the clothes for it. But they tried to fix it so Diane wouldn't show up."

Roy Williams, the other plaintiff in the 14-1 lawsuit, speaks bitterly of Al Lipscomb's plight and puts much of the blame on the black community.

"My contention is that the African-American community has not supported its warriors," he says. "These are people who have made tremendous sacrifices, who helped fight the battles for the community. And there is no physical show of appreciation for it."

Williams, like Marvin Crenshaw and other grassroots community organizers, tends to identify all middle-class black people with the middle-class Dallas black people who sold them out for years.

"These young, middle-class blacks," he says, "they don't have a history of struggle. The difference between an Al Lipscomb and a Ron Kirk is that Kirk has never even painted a protest sign, let alone marched."

His portrayal of Ron Kirk, the city's first black mayor, as an unappreciative son of privilege is a common theme among the city's black activists. It's mistaken in its understanding of Kirk, but it's also wrong--in a more serious way--in its understanding of how things happened in the rest of the world. For one thing, in the rest of the country, the role of community activist has seldom been viewed as a tenured position, let alone a paying job.

In Austin, where Ron Kirk grew up, Kirk's mother is still revered by African-Americans as a kind of female Al Lipscomb, a pioneer civil rights battler and one-woman social agency.

But Ankie Kirk was of the middle class. She was a schoolteacher. Her husband was a postal employee who flew his own plane. The Kirk children went to college and law school and did well. Social gain was the payoff.

Here in Dallas, there was never a nexus of the civil rights movement with the black middle class. Here, the struggle was a battle of paupers against white millionaires and their henchmen among the sold-out black ministers. Here, the payoff wasn't social. The payoff was a payoff.

While grassroots organizers in the black community tend to see Uncle Toms in all upwardly mobile black people, many middle-class blacks and whites as well see the organizers as opportunists who have never organized anything in their lives, including their lives.

Soon after taking office, Mayor Kirk told an out-of-town reporter, "They're used to coming down here and whooping and hollering for the TV cameras, and my impression is that most of them come right back around the next day with their hands out for money."

White liberals in Dallas in the late 1960s and 1970s tended to be heartbreakers. A so-called liberal or progressive movement to reform the Dallas Independent School District, called LEAD, made an end-run around the sold-out preachers and won support from the grassroots black community. But when black activists showed up at a meeting at Stanley Marcus' house to ask that their candidate, a postal carrier named Arthur Joe Fred, be placed on the LEAD slate for the school board election, the liberals said no.

Fred was not a doctor or a lawyer, like the black men the downtown business leaders allowed to occupy the one black seat they had created for the black community on the City Council. The rules were clear, even for liberals: A person might be black. But a person could not be black and also poor, or even working-class, and occupy public office.

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