Sullivan, Leon H. 1922–2001
Leon H. Sullivan 1922–2001
Retired preacher, civil rights activist
Leon Howard Sullivan was a man to whom a lifetime of notable accomplishments can be credited. Born in Charleston, West Virginia, on October 16, 1922, Leon Sullivan spent his life fighting racism and discrimination in the employment sector and society, both in the United States and South Africa. A retired preacher, he successfully achieved the training and placement of thousands of disadvantaged black youths, as well as worked relentlessly to bring about an end to apartheid in South Africa and boost economic and civil liberties amongst African Americans. As tribute to his numerous programs and philosophies, which created greater freedoms for blacks and minorities, Sullivan frequently received some of the most prestigious honors and awards.
In his early childhood, Sullivan lived with his grandmother while maintaining contact with his divorced parents. Young Sullivan often wandered into the hills near his home where he meditated, wrote poetry, and came close to nature and God. From his youngest days, Sullivan recalled that separation between African Americans and whites was an accepted part of life: he and his grandmother lived in a black alley, where he attended a black school, and had only black friends.
However, at the age of seven, he began questioning why African Americans and whites were separated from one another.
By the age of ten, the quickinded, purposeful youngster made a decision to stand up against bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination. His personal crusade against racial injustice began at a local drugstore whose owner had refused to serve Sullivan a soda. Sullivan continued to visit each and every drugstore, restaurant, and movie house thereafter until he was granted service and respect equal to that of white customers.
Sullivan finally saw results at an inexpensive restaurant from which he had been turned out on several occasions. When the proprietor came to ask him to leave, Sullivan stood up and began reciting the Preamble to the Constitution. When he finished, the owner not only told Sullivan he could eat at the restaurant any time he chose to, but he also gave him a free hamburger and donut as well. Considering this his first victory, Sullivan continued throughout his life to fight against racism and black oppression.
Sullivan’s physical prowess—an eventual 6’5” and 160 pounds—coupled with a commitment to playing sports, secured him a scholarship to West Virginia
Born Leon H. Sullivan on October 16, 1922, in Charleston, WV; died April 24, 2001; married: Grace Banks, 1945; children: Howard, Julie, and Hope. Education: West Virginia State College, BA, 1943; Union Theological Seminary, attended, 1945; Columbia University, M.A., 1947; Virginia Union University, D.D,
Career: Pastor, Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia 1950-88; developed “Selective Patronage” program in 1950s; founded Zion Investment Associates, Inc., 1962; founded Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America (OIC), 1964; first black director of General Motors board, 1971; originated Sullivan Principles, guidelines for American corporations doing business in South Africa, 1977; initiated the first African-African American Summit, 1991.
Awards: Selected as one of ten outstanding young men in United States by U.S. junior Chamber of Commerce, 1955; named one of 100 Outstanding Young Men of America, Life magazine, 1963; Russwurm Award, National Publisher’s Association, 1963; Philadelphia Fellowship Commission Award, 1964; Philadelphia Book Award, 1966; Edwin T. Dahlberg Award, American Baptist Convention, 1968; American Exemplar Medal, 1969; SPINGARN Medal by the NAACP, 1971; Leon Howard Sullivan Chair established at School of Social Welfare, University of Wisconsin, 1976; Franklin D, Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal, 1987; Leon Howard Sullivan Scholarship Fund established at Bentley College, MA, 1988; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1991; and Distinguished Service Award, 1991.
State University in 1938, where he played basketball and football. Though a serious knee injury brought an end to his sports scholarship, Sullivan continued with his education by working nights in a steel mill in order to make tuition payments. From his earliest days in college, Sullivan involved himself in numerous school activities, including student council, the literary society, black history groups, the newspaper guild, and the John Dewey Society. Following his grandmother’s death during his sophomore year, Sullivan also served as pastor at two churches on alternate Sundays. Sullivan was ordained as a Baptist minister at the early age of 17.
In 1942 Sullivan met Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., U.S. Representative and pastor, at West Virginia State University. Powell encouraged the young man to come to New York City; upon graduating from West Virginia State University in 1943, Sullivan moved to New York City to study theology at Union Theological Seminary and sociology at Columbia University. In New York, Powell assisted Sullivan in securing a job as a coin-box collector with the Bell Telephone Company. Later, Sullivan learned that he was the first African-American man to have a job of that nature in the United States.
While in New York City, Sullivan joined the early Civil Rights movement, becoming associated with A. Phillip Randolph—president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first full-fledged and recognized blackcontrolled union in America. Sullivan credited Randolph with teaching him the art of massive community organization and nonviolent direct action, a method he used in all his later protest programs. During this time, on Friday and Saturday evenings Sullivan and a friend delivered rousing speeches on the street corners of Harlem regarding civil rights.
During this passionate time in his life, Sullivan met his wife-to-be, Grace Banks. The couple was married in Philadelphia in 1945. Sullivan considered his wife to be his major confidante and most important critic. Together, they thought it would be best to leave New York City in order for Sullivan to find himself and strengthen his commitment to God. In 1945, the couple travelled to South Orange, New Jersey, where Sullivan spent the next five years as pastor of the First Baptist Church. Thereafter, he was called to pastor the Zion Baptist Church in North Philadelphia. It was there, beginning in 1950, that Sullivan established a name for himself and his ideals. He remained at Zion Baptist until retiring in 1988.
In the 1950s North Philadelphia was a slum. While many whites criticized the black population for the deteriorating conditions of the area, Sullivan saw the reality as resulting from overcrowded living conditions, greedy tenant owners, absence of new construction, and, most of all, pervasive prejudice and racism. As the living conditions and high unemployment of African Americans worsened, so did the crime rate. Finally, in March of 1953, Sullivan took the initiative to call a meeting of interested citizens at City Hall. There, the Philadelphia Committee was born, and, within one year, was 2,000 members strong.
The Philadelphia Committee met with police regularly and formed departmental units to effectively combat crime in the city. As a result, taprooms were closed for the first time in the city’s history, and disturbances were lessened all over the city. For his efforts, Sullivan was chosen by the National Junior Chamber of Commerce as one of the ten outstanding young men in the United States. Sullivan demonstrated his firm belief that citizens themselves must create change in America and that no program will succeed without citizen participation.
While Sullivan saw the benefit of his anti-crime and delinquency program, he felt that merely containing bad conditions was not enough. He believed that the forces behind the conditions must be eradicated for any significant change to occur for black Americans. He concentrated on job opportunities, hoping to develop a program of racial economic emancipation. Sullivan discovered that the black youths who became delinquent were also those who were unemployed, so he opened a youth employment office in the basement of his church.
The Youth Employment Service was another successful endeavor, indeed, a forerunner of youth employment activity for the nation at large. In 1957, the program was cited by the Freedom Foundation as the most effective privately developed youth employment program in the United States. However, Sullivan soon learned that of those youths placed particularly in better positions, the majority were white, rather than black. He wrote letters to the top executives of 300 of the largest firms in the Philadelphia area, as well as to the mayor, governor, and president of the United States, all to no avail. Yet he remained undaunted.
With the 1954 Supreme Court declaration that segregation in the public schools is unconstitutional, the Civil Rights movement began making strides. Sullivan was part of this movement. During a Sunday morning service he delivered a sermon—“The Walls of Jericho Must Come Down!”—that outlined his program of “Selective Patronage.” This boycotting program eventually changed private industry’s employment practices for blacks across the United States. Sullivan and his followers selectively patronized only those businesses that practiced fair hiring and promotion practices toward blacks. Those businesses which neither hired nor fairly promoted blacks were boycotted by Sullivan’s group.
The New York Times featured the program with a front page story, and, later, Fortune magazine brought the program to greater public attention on a national scale. In 1962, given the tremendous success of the Selective Patronage movement, Sullivan was invited by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., to Atlanta to relate his story of the program. Thereafter, a similar program of economic boycotting known as “Operation Breadbasket,” was initiated by Dr. King, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Following the success of “Selective Patronage,” however, Sullivan faced a second challenge.
This time Sullivan realized the need to train disadvantaged blacks to perform the positions that were now available to them. Rallying support from others, Sullivan founded the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC), which was unveiled on January 24, 1964, in zero-degree weather with 8,000 onlookers present, including many governmental figures and industry leaders. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent a personal telegram of congratulations to Sullivan on this first OIC opening, and he later visited the site. Along with President Johnson; Vice President Humphrey; Senators Robert F. Kennedy, Edward W. Brooke, and Charles H. Percy; Michigan Governor Jackie Robinson; Pennsylvania’s governor; and many other state leaders across the nation aligned themselves with the OIC philosophy. Sullivan’s efforts resulted in his receiving several awards and honors, including the Russwurm Award (1963); the Philadelphia Fellowship Community Award (1964); the Philadelphia Book Award (1966); and the American Exemplar Medal (1969).
Though the OIC struggled financially at first, it offered courses in several occupational fields, and Sullivan’s ongoing commitment to the OIC program resulted in the opening of seven additional branches, expanded job-training programs, and the placement of 5,000 disadvantaged black people in positions of employment for which the OIC had trained them. Sullivan was later successful in gaining $4 million in financial support from private sources, with an additional $15 million from the federal government, which financed the opening of independent job-training centers in 75 cities across the United States. By 1980, the OIC had amassed more than $130 million per year in funding, 140 affiliates, and comprehensive job training centers across the country. Despite dwindling federal funds during the Reagan administration, the OIC maintained training programs in 80 cities by 1993, having then trained one million men and women for jobs.
Never ceasing in his mission to improve the condition of life for others, Sullivan founded the Adult Armchair Education program (AAE). That program’s goal was to reach individuals who did not make immediate contact with the OIC. The AAE was able to establish 150 home-based programs during its first year and 400 during its second, resulting in more than 4,000 participants, 75 percent of whom made notable educational and career advances.
Sullivan also founded Zion Investment Associates (ZIA) in 1962, with members of Sullivan’s congregation as shareholders. ZIA created several projects that contributed to the economic development of African Americans. One such was 1968’s Progress Aerospace Enterprises, Inc., which trained 100 unemployed persons as aerospace technicians. Through ZIA, Sullivan also initiated the opening of the first shopping center in the United States to be owned and operated by black Americans.
By 1968, Sullivan’s obvious commitment to improving the lives of others had earned him visits by and accolades from U.S. presidents and vice presidents as well as numerous honors, including the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal in 1987 for his efforts to eradicate apartheid in South Africa. Sullivan’s communications with presidents, however, was not always well-received, as proved to be the case during the Reagan administration; besides federal funding cutbacks for OIC, the U.S. government offered only limited support for Sullivan’s pleas to stop apartheid in South Africa. Spurred by the oppressive situation for blacks in South Africa, including the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, Sullivan once again set to work to improve conditions for blacks. Appointed in 1971 as the first black person to serve on the board of General Motors Corporation, Sullivan was successful in urging the company to withdraw its business from South Africa.
In 1977 Sullivan formulated his well known Sullivan Principles, which stated specifically how Americanowned companies doing business in South Africa ought to equitably treat and promote black South African workers. The Sullivan Principles were enumerated in 1977, with a set of six directives calling for nonsegregation of the races; fair employment practices; equal pay for equal work; training for blacks and other minorities for higher level jobs; increasing numbers of blacks and minorities in supervisory positions; and improving housing, transportation, schooling, recreation, and health facilities. By 1984, Sullivan saw the need to revise the principles to require that Americans doing business in South Africa partake in civil disobedience against apartheid, allowing black workers to work where they wanted and providing them with adequate housing close to work. Soon thereafter, nearly half of all American corporations with investments in South Africa were complying with the Sullivan Principles.
Three years later, however, Sullivan was dismayed by the fact that his Sullivan Principles had not succeeded in the complete elimination of apartheid; Nelson Mandela remained imprisoned, and blacks were still being denied basic human rights. Sullivan thus called on American corporations for a complete divestment in South Africa. Additionally, he urged the Reagan administration to enact a complete trade embargo with South Africa and asked that the United States sever all diplomatic relations with South Africa. These extreme and controversial pleas, though respected by a number of businessmen and political leaders, did not please the Reagan administration, which opposed a complete pull-out of American companies, as well as a trade embargo and the severance of diplomatic ties. Additionally, South Africa’s leaders were hostile toward Sullivan following his demands for increased sanctions and, in May of 1987, informed Sullivan that they would deny him a visa for his previously planned visit to the country.
Sullivan found some South African support for his views though the African National Congress, which lent its support to his latest stance. Despite the lack of support from the Reagan administration and certain business leaders, Sullivan pursued his efforts. Commencing with the first African-African American Summit in 1991, Sullivan brought together 1,000 black Americans and 4,000 African government officials to work on ways to improve economic and living conditions South African blacks. Sullivan made another vow on behalf of South Africans, this time to build a movement in which 1,000,000 American blacks would band together to help Africa.
Issues discussed at the first summit included methods for urging the industrial world to forgive much of South Africa’s enormous financial debt, reducing inflation and budget deficits, and improving education. Sullivan maintained that he would not cease his efforts on behalf of South African blacks until Nelson Mandela was released from prison, apartheid was eradicated, and equal voting rights were conferred by the country’s government. Akin to the U.S. Peace Corps, Sullivan’s vision was to create hundreds of African Support Committees. The following year, Sullivan had begun a $40 million aid program to South Africa.
The second summit was held in Libreville, Gabon in 1993. But it was the third biennial African-African American Summit held in Dakar, Senegal, in 1995 that marked a special point in Sullivan’s human rights crusade. By this time, a few key issues of the first summit were already achieved. Apartheid was eradicated in South Africa, equal voting rights were supported by the government, and the newly freed Nelson Mandela was able to participate for the first time. The South African president, who had spent 27 years of his life as a political prisoner, was one of the many individuals who benefited directly from Sullivan’s decades-long efforts.
The fifth annual Summit in 1999 was responsible for drawing the largest contingent of black Americans ever to travel at once to the African continent. During the “Millennium Summit,” more than 3,500 people, including the African leaders of more than 19 nations and 1000 distinguished African Americans, gathered with Sullivan in Ghana, West Africa. The “Millennium Summit,” focused on improvement of education and medical care, promoting agriculture and foreign investment, and basic business and economic development. President Clinton sent a delegation of six headed by U. S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman. Other notable African Americans in attendance included The Rev.
In an interview with Ebony, Dr. Edith Irby Jones, former president of the National Medical Association, commented on the actions that came out of the summits. “We didn’t sit around and talk about the health problems affecting Africa,” she said. “We actually put down a plan of attack and timetables for addressing those issues. So that within weeks we will have people on committees, people procuring vaccines and people actually working to eradicate and stop the spread of things like AIDS and tuberculosis and some of these other very preventable diseases.”
These “plans of attack” were the reason Sullivan’s African-African American Summits had become more successful each year. The plan of attack for 1999 included launching the “People’s Investment For Africa” (PIFA). PIFA raised money primarily from individual Americans for investing in and supporting more than 1,000 new small businesses on the continent. In late 1999, PIFA joined the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) in its first micro financing fund for Africa by pledging to raise $1.25 million of a $2.25 million loan commitment.
Because of a growing number of businesses being introduced to the African continent, in 1999 Sullivan also introduced the Global Sullivan Principles at a meeting of the United Nations. The Global Principles were aimed at business of all sizes. They served as a blueprint for socially responsible companies to follow for policies and practices. They most specifically targeted companies conducting business in developing nations. The Global Principles built on the basics of the SullivanPrinciples for South Africa.
On April 24, 2001, Sullivan died after a long battle with leukemia. He was 78. Clearly, Leon Howard Sullivan was a man with a vision, who spent his life working towards that vision of alleviating racism and oppression by increasing opportunities wherever and whenever possible. People the world over were touched by his vision during his life and resolved to continue his legacy after his death.
Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History, Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1996.
Encyclopedia of Black America, McGraw-Hill, 1981.
Sullivan, Leon H., Build Brother Build, Macrae Smith Company, 1969.
African News Service, May 21, 1999.
The Christian Century, May 23, 2001.
Ebony, August, 1999.
Emerge, July-August 1995, p., 20.
Jet, March 30, 1992, p. 4; March 27, 1995, p. 55.
M2 Presswire, November 8, 1999.
New York Times, May 18, 1987, p. A12; June 4, 1987, pp. Al, D6; April 18, 1991, p. A8; May 10, 1995, p. A3.
PR Newswire, April 26, 2001. U.S. Newswire, October 12, 2000.
—Marilyn J. Williams and Leslie Rochelle
Sullivan, Leon H. 1922–
Leon H. Sullivan 1922–
Clergyman, civil rights activist, business leader
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 run-down slum of north Philadelphia, pioneered the protest concept of economic boycott of stores and companies that failed to employ blacks. He also created the job-training agency Opportunities Industrialization Centers 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, the boy 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 Abyssinian 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.
Born Leon Howard Sullivan, October 16, 1922, in Charleston, WV; married Grace Banks; children: Howard, Julie, Hope. Education : West Virginia State College, B.A., 1943; received degree from Union Theological Seminary, 1945; Columbia University, M.A., 1947; Virginia Union University, D.D.
Civil rights leader; pastor, First Baptist Church, South Orange, NJ; president of the South Orange Council of Churches; Zion Baptist Church, Philadelphia, pastor, 1950-88, pastor emeritus, 1988—; Zion Home for Retirement, founder, chairman, 1960—. Founder, director, and chairman of Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America Inc., Zion investment Associates Inc., and Progress Aerospace Enterprises Inc.; cofounder of International Foundation for Education and Self-Help, 1982; organizer of African/African-American Summit, 1991; member of board of directors, General Motors Corporation and Mellon Bank Corporation. Established Leon Howard Sullivan Scholarship Fund, Bentley College, MA, 1988.
Awards: Named one of ten outstanding young men, U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce, 1955; National Publishers Association Award, 1963; Philadelphia Fellowship Communion Award, 1964; Philadelphia Book Award, 1966; American Exemplar Medal, 1969; Leon Howard Sullivan Chair, School of Social Welfare, University of Wisconsin, 1976; Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedom Medal Award, 1987; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1991; Russwurm Award; more than 30 honorary degrees from various colleges, including Dartmouth, Princeton, Swarthmore, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania.
Addresses: Office —Progress Plaza Shopping Center, 1501 North Broad St., Philadelphia, PA 19122.
He 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.
In the late 1950s Sullivan observed that unemployment was a major cause of crime in his area. In response, he 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. Sullivan also 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 for 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.
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. 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.
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.”
Black Enterprise, October 1988; April 1991.
Fortune, 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.