-- ATLANTA -- Civil rights leaders on Monday asked for a meeting with Hawks officials after a team owner disclosed that he wrote a racially charged email theorizing that black fans kept white fans away.
The Rev. Markel Hutchins said he and others wanted a chance to discuss what they think is a racist attitude permeating the entire organization. He did not request a meeting before hosting a news conference outside Philips Arena, where the team plays.
"Evidently the culture of racism and bigotry that is pervasive and ever-present in the Atlanta Hawks leadership is embarrassing to the city of Atlanta and undermines the very best of Atlanta's history of race relations and being a leader for the nation and the world," Hutchins said.
It was not immediately clear whether the team would meet with Hutchins and his supporters, who also called for the Hawks to contract with more minority-owned businesses and offer internships for minority students. A Hawks spokesman did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Hutchins and others were responding to an announcement Sunday that team co-owner Bruce Levenson would sell his controlling interest in the team, thanks in part to an inflammatory email he wrote two years ago. Levenson said he wrote the email in an attempt "to bridge Atlanta's racial sports divide." However, he theorized that black fans were driving off white fans.
Levenson said he voluntarily reported the email to the NBA, which pressured Clippers owner Donald Sterling to sell his team after he was recorded scolding his girlfriend for bringing black men to games. Steve Ballmer became the team's owner Aug. 12
In Atlanta, the Rev. Gerald Durley told reporters that the team's bigger problem was its lack of success, not the race of its fans.
"Who would come with a team that's not winning? You've got to understand the market if you're talking about business," said Durley, who suggested that black fans could boycott games if they felt unwanted.
Atlanta famously branded itself as "The City Too Busy to Hate," during the civil rights movement, but the city's race history is complex. Hutchins said Levenson might be correct in suggesting whites are reluctant to mingle with blacks.
Hawks fan Gerald Perriman, 27, said he was initially angered by Levenson's email, then developed more mixed feelings.
"He's being somewhat honest," said Perriman, who has a white mother and a black father. "I can believe white people are uncomfortable being in a minority, maybe in the arena."
Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had his own take on the controversy. Writing for Time, Abdul-Jabbar said, in part, that "Levenson is a businessman asking reasonable questions about how to put customers in seats."
Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.