Sullivan, Leon Howard

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Sullivan, Leon Howard

October 16, 1922
April 24, 2001

Civil rights teacher Leon Sullivan was born in Charleston, West Virginia. As a young man he was encouraged by his grandmother to improve the lives of the disadvantaged; after receiving a B.A. from West Virginia State College in 1943, he decided he could do this best by entering the ministry. That year he moved to New York and, on a scholarship, enrolled in the Union Theological Seminary, where he came to the attention of Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Powell hired Sullivan as an assistant minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Another mentor, A. Philip Randolph, instructed Sullivan in community mobilization tactics. These lessons stood Sullivan in good stead when, after receiving his seminary degree in 1945 and an M.A. from Columbia University in religious education in 1947, he worked as a community organizer in South Orange, New Jersey.

In 1950 Sullivan was named pastor of the Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia. A small church of six hundred members, it had grown to a membership of three thousand by the time Sullivan retired and became pastor emeritus in 1988. He was active in numerous efforts in the late 1950s and early 1960s to encourage local businesses to hire minorities, although he came to the conclusion that many African Americans were unprepared for a number of employment opportunities. To address that need, Sullivan founded Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America (OIC) in 1964. "Integration without preparation is frustration," he claimed. A not-for-profit organization that provided motivation and job training to unskilled workers of all races, OIC grew by 1980 into a network of nationwide comprehensive training centers with 140 affiliates and funding of over $130 million a year. With the advent of the Reagan administration, however, federal funding for OIC dwindled, and the organization was forced to make deep cuts in its programs and budget. Nevertheless, by 1993 the OIC still had training programs in eighty cities, had trained a total of one million men and women for jobs, and had established branches in at least thirteen sub-Saharan African countries.

Sullivan is probably best known, however, for formulating what became known as the Sullivan Principles, a set of guidelines for American corporations doing business in South Africa aimed at obtaining fair treatment of black South African workers. Using his prominent position as the first black director of General Motors (he was appointed to that post in 1971), Sullivan enumerated the principles in 1977. The original six called for nonsegregation of the races in all eating, comfort, and work facilities; equal and fair employment practices for all employees; equal pay for all employees doing equal or comparable work for the same period of time; initiation and development of training programs to prepare substantial numbers of blacks and other nonwhites for supervisory, administrative, clerical, and technical jobs; increasing the number of blacks and other nonwhites in supervisory positions; and improving the quality of employees' lives outside the work environment in such areas as housing, transportation, schooling, recreation, and health facilities.

In 1984 the principles were revised to require American corporations doing business in South Africa to work to overturn the country's racial policies, to allow black workers freedom of mobility in order to take advantage of work opportunities wherever they existed, and to provide adequate housing for workers close to the workplace. By this time, about 150 of the 350 American corporations with investments in South Africa were voluntarily complying with the principles.

From the beginning, however, the principles were controversial. Some South African trade unionists and many Americans who favored complete corporate disinvestment in South Africa claimed that the principles enabled corporations to say they were fighting racism while profiting from apartheid. But Sullivan claimed that without the principles, the enormous leverage of American corporate power could not create changes in the lives of black South Africans.

Nevertheless, in 1987 Sullivan declared that the principles had failed to undermine apartheid. He called on American corporations to sell their investments in South Africa and on the Reagan administration to sever all diplomatic ties. He also urged a complete trade embargo with South Africa.

At the same time, Sullivan was expanding his self-help and educational efforts in Africa. In 1983 he established the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH) to fight illiteracy, hunger, and unemployment in fifteen sub-Saharan African countries alongside the OIC. In the 1990s he was the moving force behind a series of AfricanAfrican American Summits held successively in South Africa, Gabon, Senegal, and Ghana. The last summit, in 1999, drew 3,500 people, including 1,000 prominent African Americans. The purpose of the summits was to focus on ways to improve the living conditions of Africans.

Sullivan received numerous awards and honorary degrees. The NAACP awarded him the Spingarn Medal in 1971 for training inner-city workers for new job opportunities. In 1991 he received the highest U.S. civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his life's work in helping the poor and disadvantaged in both America and Africa. That same year he received the Ivory Coast's highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award, in recognition of his efforts to improve the lives of sub-Saharan Africans.

See also Abyssinian Baptist Church; Anti-Apartheid Movement; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Randolph, Asa Philip


"Leon H. Sullivan." In Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 30, edited by Ashyia Henderson. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 2001.

"Negro on G.M. Board Ready for Challenge." New York Times, January 9, 1975, p. 35.

"Rev. Sullivan Steps Up." New York Times, November 6, 1983, Sec. 4, pp. 1213.

Sullivan, Leon. Build, Brother, Build. Philadelphia: Macrae Smith, 1969.

Walker, Jim. "Interview: Elton Jolly." Crisis (April 1985): 3448.

michael paller (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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