Leon Howard Sullivan

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Leon Howard Sullivan

As pastor of the Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia, much of the ministry of Leon H. Sullivan (born 1922) was directed toward improving employment prospects of African Americans. This led to his founding the Opportunities Industrialization Center (O.I.C.) in 1964 in order to impart employment skills to inner city youths.

American civil rights leader Reverend Leon H. Sullivan's revelation to Fortune magazine that he was undertaking "a bold new venture" to assist the continent of Africa during the 1990s was no startling proposal from this pastor, who has been a life-long social activist. Sullivan, who early in his career accepted the ministry of Zion Baptist Church, which was located in a poor section of north Philadelphia, pioneered the protest concept of economic boycott of stores and companies that do not employ blacks. He created the job-training agency Opportunities Industrialization Center of America Inc., which spawned 75 similar centers throughout the country and trained nearly two million people.

Long an advocate of black entrepreneurship, Sullivan led the members of his church to form Zion Investment Associates, Inc., which in turn developed Progress Aerospace Enterprises, Inc., a company that manufactured aerospace parts and actively created jobs for the unemployed. But he is most famous, perhaps, for devising the Sullivan Principles, a business code by which companies worldwide operating in South Africa enacted equal treatment of black workers—prior to sanctions imposed by the United States in 1987. Upon his retirement from Zion Baptist Church, Sullivan told Fortune that he would shift his focus to the needs of Africa since his "work at the [Zion Baptist] church is done. We finally paid off the mortgage."

Born October 16, 1922, in Charleston, West Virginia, Sullivan's parents were divorced when he was a child. Growing up in the alleys of a poor neighborhood, he demonstrated unusual intellectual and athletic gifts. During his childhood and adolescence, he avidly pursued religion and sports. At 17, Sullivan became an ordained Baptist minister. After earning an athletic scholarship to play football and basketball, he entered West Virginia State University. When Sullivan lost his scholarship following a knee injury, he worked evenings in a steel mill in order to continue his studies. Furthering his education in New York City, Sullivan obtained a degree in theology from Union Theological Seminary and a degree in sociology from Columbia University during the mid-1940s. Upon graduation, he served as an assistant to Adam Clayton Powell, pastor of the Abyssinia Baptist Church in New York's Harlem and later congressman from the State of New York. Sullivan served his initial pastorate at First Baptist Church in South Orange, New Jersey, and was voted president of the South Orange Council of Churches.

Early Works Close to Home

Sullivan became the pastor of the Zion Baptist Church in 1950. The Philadelphia neighborhood surrounding the church was overrun with juvenile crime, so Sullivan instituted youth programs to counter the rampant adolescent delinquency and gang warfare. In 1955, as a result of his efforts, he was named an "outstanding young man" by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce. That year he was also chosen as one of ten outstanding young men in the United States by the same organization.

In the late 1950s Sullivan observed that unemployment was a major cause of crime in his area. In response, Sullivan organized an economic boycott that opened 3, 000 jobs to blacks in Philadelphia in 1961. Job training programs followed the opening of Opportunities Industrialization Centers in 1964. In 1962 Sullivan organized his church congregation into shareholders of a company he helped them form, Zion Investment Associates, Inc. Progress Aerospace Enterprises, Inc., founded in 1968, was one of several economic-improvement projects Sullivan formed after the establishment of Zion Investment Associates. Many organizations and companies, including the Ford Foundation and General Electric Corporation, have contributed funds to Sullivan's enterprises.

Sullivan devised his now well-known principles of fair business practices in 1977. And though the Sullivan Principles were widely implemented, discrimination against black employees working in South Africa for American companies continued to consume him. Disillusioned over the disregard of his Principles there, he urged the U.S. government to institute sanctions against South Africa in the late 1980s, which would pressure that country's government—in which the black majority at that time had no voice—to revise its racist employment practices.

Retired to Pursue Global Concerns

In 1982 Sullivan established the Phoenix-based International Foundation for Education and Self-Help, through which he examined methods of achieving social and political equity for blacks around the world. He envisioned a series of conferences where African and African-American leaders, working in unison, would take steps toward African self-reliance. In 1988, after 38 years at his pulpit—his congregation having grown from 500 to 6, 000—Sullivan retired to Phoenix, Arizona. Though he continued to preach occasionally at Zion, he focused most of his energies on more global concerns.

One of these was his organization of the first African and African-American Summit, which in April of 1991 addressed the lack of black American involvement in African affairs. Sullivan told Kenneth B. Noble in the New York Times, "Psychologically, we've been brainwashed to believe that Africa was the dark continent, a place of crocodiles, trees and Tarzan, " and as such, not worthy of mutual discourse.

African/African-American Summit

At the African and African-American Summit at Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sullivan predicted that Africa was the economic future of the world. His plan to realize that projection included debt relief for African nations as well as aid from American blacks for the development of education, food production, and industrialization. Of his design to generate hundreds of African support committees similar to the Peace Corps, Sullivan disclosed to New York Times contributor Noble, "I envision the best and the brightest professionals giving a year … to work with Africa."

Sullivan remains undaunted by obstacles to the future of his African ministry. "The economic progress we've seen in Asia in recent years is also possible in Africa, " Sullivan told Carolene Langie in Black Enterprise. "If in just 40 years, Asians and others can build factories, electronic devices and automobiles, with the proper tools, Africans can do the same."

Further Reading

Black Enterprise, October 1988; April 1991.

Fortune, July 9, 1984; July 6, 1987; August 1, 1988.

Jet, January 28, 1991; July 29, 1991; December 9, 1991.

New Republic, November 14, 1988.

New York Times, April 18, 1991.

Time, November 3, 1986; June 15, 1987. □