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The Reverend Leon H. Sullivan was born on this date in 1922. He was a Black minister, businessman, educator, and founder of a community nonprofit organization.
Sullivan was born in West Virginia, the son of an elevator operator and a movie theater janitor, and grew up in an impoverished and segregated community. As a child, he helped support himself by collecting and reselling discarded bottles. Among the many indignities of being Black in early twentieth-century America was having to walk on the "colored side of the street" to deliver laundry to his grandmother’s customers.
Sullivan said the defining moment of his life came when he was eight years old as he tried to buy a soda at a white lunch counter. Sullivan recalled the clerk said to him, “Stand on your feet, black boy; you can’t sit down here.” “It was then I decided I was going to stand against that kind of thing for the rest of my life.”
At the age of 17, he was ordained a Baptist minister. After finishing high school, he went on to graduate from West Virginia State College with the help of a football scholarship and a part-time job at night in a local steel mill. After graduating in 1943, Sullivan served as pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia. He increased the church’s membership to 6,000 and became known as “The Lion from Zion.”
It was in Philadelphia that Sullivan began his mission to create more jobs for minorities. He organized pastors from more than 400 Black churches and implemented a strategy called “selective patronage,” meaning, “don’t buy where you don’t work.” It was through these boycotts that businesses were forced to hire more minorities. Sullivan discovered, however, that many minorities were unprepared for jobs.
This encouraged him to found the Opportunities Industrialization Centers Inc. of America (OICA), which operates through a national network of local affiliated organizations. OICA has 60 affiliates in 30 states across the country and the District of Columbia and 33 centers in 18 different countries. OICA provides realistic training for Blacks. In 1971, Sullivan became the first Black to serve on the board of a major U. S. Corporation, General Motors.
In 1975, he was described as “the most hated man in South Africa” due to his efforts to end apartheid in that country. Sullivan created the African/African American Summit to form a stronger bond between the two continents and established the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help, which trains teachers and oversees the building of schools in Africa. In 1992, Sullivan was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He also received the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award in 1999.
He was a 33rd Degree Prince Hall Mason, a Shriner, and Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. Leon Sullivan died in Scottsdale, Arizona, on April 25, 2001.
An Encyclopedia of African American Christian Heritage
by Marvin Andrew McMickle
Judson Press, Copyright 2002