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Apartheid; Columbia University; Global Sullivan Principles of Corporate Social Responsibility; Presidential Medal of Freedom; Union Theological Seminary; West Virginia State University


Leon Sullivan was born on October 16, 1922, in Charleston, West Virginia. He was an African-American preacher, social activist, and educator responsible for leading international efforts to promote nonviolent social and economic change. In 1950, Sullivan moved to the Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Known as the "Lion of Zion," he served there until 1988, and during his 38 years at Zion the congregation grew from 600 to 6,000 people. Zion Baptist Church was the base for his eventual work in job training and community development. He stood up for justice, equal rights, and equal employment opportunities for all citizens. He also stood up for the impoverished, vulnerable, and victimized people of the world. He died on April 24, 2001, in Scottsdale, Arizona.


Reverend Dr. Leon Howard Sullivan was born on October 16, 1922, to Charles and Helen Sullivan in Charleston, West Virginia. He was brought up by his grandmother after his young parents divorced when he was three. Times were difficult for him and his family living in the segregated South. When he was just a child, Sullivan sat down at a counter in a Charleston drug store when he was promptly ordered to leave. "Stand on your feet, black boy! You can't sit down here!" the white proprietor yelled. It was Sullivan's first direct experience with bigotry and an early influence in shaping his decision to fight discrimination.

Throughout college, he worked as a coin-box collector for the Bell Telephone Company, the first black to hold such a job. He attended West Virginia State University until an injury during his junior year ended his ability to stay in college. By then, he had decided to become a minister. Rev. Moses Newsome, pastor at the First Baptist Church in Charleston where Sullivan attended, took the young man under his wing. With Newsome's encouragement, Sullivan was ordained at the age of 17. He began serving his first church, The First Baptist Church of Montgomery, while finishing his college degree in sociology at Columbia.

In 1943, Sullivan was awarded a scholarship to the prestigious Union Theological Seminary in New York. During this time, Sullivan met A. Philip Randolph, the originator and organizer of the first March on Washington to obtain more jobs for blacks. With the mentorship of Randolph, Sullivan developed his strategy of nonviolent, direct action and his ideas on the development of communities through community-based organizations. After leaving a small church in South Orange, New Jersey, Sullivan became the pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia in 1950. Known as the "Lion of Zion," he served there until 1988, and during his 38 years at Zion the congregation grew from 600 to 6,000 people.

Zion Baptist Church was the base for his eventual work in job training and community development. When he first became minister in 1950, he immediately realized the lack of jobs for black youth in Philadelphia. Thousands were unemployed, and yet thousands of jobs were vacant. Reverend Sullivan believed that jobs were the key to the economic development and true empowerment of African Americans rather than a dependence upon public assistance. Because Philadelphia's businesses would not hire young black job applicants in the late 1950s and early 60s, Sullivan initiated a successful "Selective Patronage" operation in Philadelphia, with 400 other ministers, to boycott companies that did not practice equal opportunity in employment to hire and promote African Americans. Later, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would adopt the highly successful program and transform it into the Operation Breadbasket program for implementation nationwide.

While the "Philadelphia Boycotts" Sullivan organized opened up jobs for blacks, it quickly became apparent that many young people lacked the skills to take advantage of the new opportunities. In 1964, as a response to the employment crisis, he founded the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) in an abandoned jailhouse in a North Philadelphia ghetto. OIC provided employment training and retraining for those who lacked the necessary work skills, mainly blacks and other nonwhite citizens. To make his program successful, Sullivan generated the job training program to include two levels of instruction. The first level deals with development of self-esteem, and the second level consists of practical job training skills. The undertaking was a huge success, and in 1969, OIC International was created to provide employment-training services on a global scale. The efforts of OIC International are focused mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, but centers also exist in Europe, Central America, and Asia. This self-help training program has spread to 76 centers in the United States and 33 centers in 18 other countries, training more than two million people worldwide. Sullivan also founded the Progress Investment Associates (PIA), as well as the Zion Nonprofit Charitable Trust (ZNCT), to fund housing, shopping, human services, educational, and other nonprofit ventures for inner-city dwellers. He established inner-city retirement and assisted-living complexes in Philadelphia and other cities throughout the country, dubbed Opportunities Towers.

In the following years of his career, Sullivan began the work for which he has been widely known. Leon Sullivan joined the Board of Directors at General Motors in 1971, being the first black member on a board of a major corporation. General Motors was the largest employer of blacks in South Africa at that time, and Sullivan decided to use his position on the Board of Directors to apply economic pressure to end the unjust system of apartheid in that country. He used his corporate position to oppose apartheid and create a movement towards change. The result was the development of the Sullivan Principles, a code of conduct written in 1977 for American businesses operating in South Africa. The Sullivan Principles served as the future blueprint for ending apartheid.

Leon Sullivan passionately believed in equality for all races, which explained his dedication to ending apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid was the policy and the system of laws implemented and continued by "White" minority governments in South Africa from 1948 to 1990 and by extension any legally sanctioned system of racial segregation. The Sullivan Principles called for racial non-segregation on the factory floor and in company eating and washing facilities, fair employment practices, equal pay for equal work, training for blacks and other nonwhites so they could advance to better jobs, promotion of more blacks and other nonwhites to supervisory positions, and improved housing, schooling, recreation and health facilities for workers. The Principles forced the powerful elite to address the inequality that exists between the wealthy and impoverished. Soon after their creation, G.M. and other corporations began to pull out of South Africa until apartheid came to an end in 1994.

Nelson Mandela, then president of South Africa, who had tried unsuccessfully to end apartheid in the past, recognized Sullivan as a friend and a true believer that South Africa would emerge from the devastation of apartheid. In June 1988, he decided to retire with the office of Pastor Emeritus in order to focus on the work of OIC International and to expand the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH), which he founded in 1983. IFESH is a non-profit organization based in Phoenix, Arizona, which has been successful in training over 100,000 skilled workers, 100,000 newly developed farmers, and five million people in literacy tied to health education. In 1991, IFESH sponsored the first biennial African-African American Summit, convened by Sullivan in 1991 in Cote D'Ivoire, the west coast of Africa. The summit brought world leaders to Africa to discuss ways to improve the quality of life in sub-Sahara countries through economic development, debt relief, industrialization, education, and medical advancements. Every two years, the summit focused on enhancing African and American partnerships.

In the late 1990s, Sullivan brought world and business leaders together to expand the successful Sullivan Principles into the Global Sullivan Principles of Corporate Social Responsibility. These expanded principles call for multinational companies to play a much larger role in the advancement of human rights and social justice. In November 1999, at a special meeting at the United Nations Headquarters, Sullivan and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan formally introduced these new principles to the corporate world. The aim of the Global Sullivan Principles was to improve human rights, social justice, and economic fairness not only in Africa but everywhere in the world where they are ignored. These were ethical guidelines for multinational corporations in the globalized economy, and about 100 American corporations have now accepted them. In addition to holding honorary doctorate degrees from over 50 colleges and universities, including Swarthmore, Dartmouth, and Princeton, Reverend Sullivan was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992 by President George H. W. Bush, honoring him for his "voice of reason for over forty years" and a lifetime of work in helping the economically and socially disadvantaged people in the world.

In November 1999, he received the prestigious Notre Dame Award, which is conferred "annually on a person who has achieved international recognition for the contribution to the welfare of humanity." Furthermore, in December 1999, he received the Eleanor Roosevelt Award from President Bill Clinton who recognized Leon's humanitarian efforts around the world. Rev. Sullivan believed in advocating self-help principles of empowerment, community development and self-reliance. He was a man of courage, a servant of the people, and above all a man of God. Rev. Dr. Sullivan devoted his life to serving others. He passed away on April 24, 2001. He was survived by his wife, Grace, and three children, Howard, Julie, and Hope.

  • America Is Theirs: And Other Poems. New Jersey: Sayle & Wimmer, 1948.
  • Build Brother Build. Philadelphia:Macrae Smith, 1969.
  • Alternatives to Despair. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1972.
  • Philosophy of a Giant, Philadelphia: Progressive Printers, 1973.
  • Moving Mountains: The Principles and Purposes of Leon Sullivan. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1998.
  • Global Sullivan Principles of Social Responsibility, 1999.

For more information:

  • Visit the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation at <>>.
  • Paller, Michael. Sullivan, Leon Howard. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Ed. Colin A. Palmer. 2nd ed. Vol. 5. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006. 2152-2153. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 1 Oct. 2011.
Literary Note: 

Pastor of a North Philadelphia church, Leon Sullivan developed the Sullivan Principles for corporate responsibility.

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