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Tawana meet the new Al Sharpton?

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.

Hicks didn't respond to a request for an interview, but Sharpton says the meeting included a discussion of the Katz memo.

"I thought it was a very firm, candid, yet cordial meeting," Sharpton says. "I thought it was appropriate, since one of his subsidiary companies had offended us with that memo, that he hear directly what we had to say and that we hear directly from him and that that's not what his company will tolerate."

Besides Hicks, former Dallas City Manager John Ware was also on hand, no doubt to discuss his vague promise of bringing economic development to southern Dallas. Sharpton was impressed with Ware.

"He talked about what they intend to do there [in southern Dallas]," Sharpton says. "If there are minority businessmen that have credible proposals, they are willing to look at them and go forward."

In Fort Worth, Tandy's Edmondson described his meeting with Sharpton and seven others as a cordial, "get-acquainted" gathering that did not get into details.

"We talked about ways to enhance our relationship with the African-American community as well as the Hispanic community," Edmondson says. "I think he really wanted to understand philosophically where we are. I think he and his group went away feeling pretty comfortable about that."

Edmondson declined to identify the seven or so people who accompanied Sharpton to the August 19 meeting, though he says several were local individuals employed at various media outlets.

"It's safe to say that he wanted to use his contacts to introduce individuals in the Dallas community to us," Edmondson says. "[Sharpton's] interests were really more around civil rights issues than media issues. He has a constituency. He wants to heighten the awareness of companies, in general, and the community, in general, that we ought to be working together and growing together. There ought to be reciprocal investments."

If it seems weird that Sharpton is joining hands with a conservative like Comer Cottrell, what's weirder is that he is snubbing the man more closely aligned with his established practice of protests and demonstrations: Dallas NAACP President Lee Alcorn.

When reached last week, Alcorn said he was somewhat "set back" that nobody contacted him before Sharpton's visit, which included a luncheon speech at the Wyndham Anatole Hotel and an evening address at the Rev. Zan Holmes' St. Luke Community United Methodist Church.

Alcorn says he welcomes Sharpton and is willing to join forces with him on whatever it is he has planned for the city, but he doubts Sharpton can effect change just by breezing into town with a bullhorn and a bucket of sound bites.

"He's not going to be able to fly in here and say, 'We want economic parity,' and fly out. There are not a lot of people standing by the wayside to protest and demonstrate issues here in the city," Alcorn says. "If Sharpton's going to do that, then he's going to have to be here to work with them."

Alcorn, like everyone else in town, can only guess what Sharpton and Cottrell are talking about.

"I don't know if this is totally unselfish on [Cottrell's] part. I think he sees where Al Sharpton can help him--he's a businessperson, and he's obviously trying to improve his business by using someone like Al Sharpton," Alcorn says.

Despite Sharpton's private meetings with Hicks and Edmondson, Alcorn suspects that Sharpton really hasn't abandoned his zest for demonstration, and that maybe, just maybe, Cottrell is changing his accommodating ways.

"Some of these [minority] conservatives, especially the ones in business, realize that in order to get their fair share, it's not going to come from just saying, 'We're in business,'" Alcorn says. "Sharpton has a history of direct action, with marches and demonstrations, and they see some advantage to that. Maybe they're realizing they have to partner with someone who will force these kinds of issues."

But Sharpton swears he's not coming to town to lead demonstrations--unless, of course, he feels compelled to do so.

"I don't want you to think that [my arrival] necessarily means that this is going to be a negative," Sharpton says. "It could be a very cooperative experience.


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