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Three weeks ago, the billboard at the corner of 138th Street and Lenox Avenue advertised Salem cigarettes.

It now wishes Mother Hale a happy 85th birthday.Since the Rev. Calvin O. Butts, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, and some of his followers began whitewashing billboards that have cigarette and liquor advertisements aimed at blacks this past month, the billboard companies have begun putting up public service announcements in some spots where the ads that offended Butts once beckoned.

Comparing Harlem to the black South African township of Soweto, which he visited recently, Butts said, ``The prevalence of alcohol and cigarette advertisements in Soweto and America's inner cities manifests the elastic ruthlessness of these companies' greed and proclivity to exploit the poor and disenfranchised people.'

Helm said blacks are no more easily swayed by advertising than other groups and implied that acting as if they were is racist.

The Association of National Advertisers in New York City has sent Mayor David N. Dinkins a letter asking him to see that the police enforce laws against vandalism.

``Is vigilante censorship not only going to be condoned but, in effect, given tacit support by New York City officials?' asked DeWitt F. Helm Jr., the association's president.

Dinkins responded that Butts must be prepared, like Martin Luther King Jr., to pay the price of civil disobedience.

Butts has said he will go to jail rather than give in.

As yet, no billboard owner or advertiser has lodged the complaint necessary to send Butts to jail. Instead, they have, in some cases, conceded the fight.


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