Tawana meet the new Al Sharpton?

New York's rabble-rousing reverend announces he's ready to take on Dallas

The Rev. Al Sharpton wants the citizens of Dallas to know, for the record, that he is not the disruptive sort, and he certainly isn't coming here with any intention of stirring up trouble.

"I think anyone who has that perception wants to have that perception, because the record clearly doesn't say that," says Sharpton. "Why would over 100,000 people vote for somebody to be the mayor of New York if they thought he was disruptive?"

The better question, for Dallasites anyway, is, What does the well-known and highly controversial New York civil rights activist want from the city of Dallas?

Sharpton gained national notoriety for protesting the alleged gang-rape in 1987 of a black teenager named Tawana Brawley. The allegation, which was later discredited, resulted in a libel suit against Sharpton--which he lost in July. He must now pay a $65,000 judgment.

Last month, Sharpton surprised many Dallas business and community leaders when he popped into town and announced his plan to open a branch of his National Action Network here later this fall.

It's not at all clear, however, that Sharpton will follow through. Details of the office are sketchy. Sharpton says he doesn't know where it will be or who will head it, though he does say it will run on donations. The expansion is part of a new, nationwide strategy designed to bring economic development to black and Latino communities. The strategy includes plans to open a total of 20 NAN offices in major U.S. cities, including Dallas and Houston, by the year 2000. Sharpton claims there are presently four NAN branch offices--in Bloomfield, New Jersey; Chicago; Los Angeles; and Detroit, the last of which was scheduled to open this week. But the Dallas Observer could find no telephone listings for any of those offices. A NAN representative in New York declined to provide more specific information about the branch offices.

During a telephone interview from his New York headquarters, Sharpton says the new show he's taking on the road will mark a significant departure from his widely known practice of protesting civil rights violations, especially those involving alleged police brutality.

"Basically we feel that the new civil rights fight is in terms of economic opportunity and economic empowerment," Sharpton says. "If we cannot bring blacks and Latinos into the economic mainstream, then I think we still are not where we need to be as American citizens going into the 21st century."

What Sharpton's saying might sound good to some Dallasites--especially those who live in the city's southern, and predominantly minority, sector, where the subject of economic development is the talk of the town. But it's hard to know how genuine Sharpton's newfound conversion to economics is and whether his arrival in the button-down world of Dallas politics will be well-received.

Sharpton readily admits he knows next to nothing about Dallas' economy and politics--he had only the vaguest familiarity with the names "Ron Kirk" and "John Wiley Price"--and says he's not going to move here after the NAN office opens. But if his brief visit to Dallas was any indication, Sharpton is well aware that the key to doing business here is to do it behind closed doors.

While in Dallas, Sharpton met privately with Tom Hicks, the president and CEO of Chancellor Media, and David Edmondson, the senior vice president for marketing and advertising for the Fort Worth-based Tandy Corp.

Sharpton has also enlisted the aid of businessman Comer Cottrell, a conservative Republican who heads the hair-care products company Pro-Line, Inc. A member of the Dallas Citizens Council, Cottrell commands the respect of--and therefore has access to--his white colleagues in the local business community.

Sharpton says he met Cottrell "a couple of months ago" during a meeting in which the minister pitched his latest cause: the lack of advertising dollars spent on radio stations geared to minority markets.

"We've seen each other at different affairs, but we never started talking about Dallas until earlier this year," Sharpton says of Cottrell.

Cottrell did not respond to several requests for an interview. And Sharpton, though happy as always to speak to the press, declined to give any specific description of what projects, if any, he and Cottrell are planning.

"I think he will be one of the businesspeople that support the effort, because clearly he's a businessman and wants to see anything that would create a better climate to do business," Sharpton says. "Other than that, there's no formal coming-together. I'm not going into the cosmetics business and I don't think Comer's going to be leading any marches."

Sharpton's visit to Dallas dovetailed nicely with his latest campaign to pressure national advertisers to spend more money in minority communities, particularly in radio.

Sharpton adopted the cause in May after he laid eyes on an internal memo from Katz Radio Group, a subsidiary of Chancellor Media that sells national radio airtime to advertisers. The memo instructed sales representatives in New York to advise companies to forgo advertising on stations geared toward blacks and Hispanics because "advertisers should want prospects, not suspects."

In June, Sharpton led a protest on Madison Avenue to protest the memo and has threatened boycotts. Katz officials have since apologized for the memo.

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