LEON SULLIVAN

LEON SULLIVAN

b.1922

Leon Sullivan, founder of the Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America (OIC), was bom in Charleston, West Virginia. He became a Baptist minister while still in high school, and accepted an athletic schol¬ arship to West Virginia State College. He then studied theology at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University based on the recommen¬ dations of his mentor,Rev. Adam Clayton Pow¬ ell, Jr. (see no. 68).

Sullivan learned the art of successful mass protest by watching Powell launch the “Don’t buy where you can’t work” cam¬ paign, encouraging African-Americans to spend their income in businesses that employed African-Americans. He also learned how to affect a crowd.

Preaching at First Baptist Church of South Orange, New Jersey, and later at Zion Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, Sullivan spoke not just about God, but about money. With the goal of black economic independence, Sullivan organized boycotts that convinced Philadel¬ phia businesses to hire over 3,000 more African-Americans by the year 1962.

Although the boycotts had a high rate of success, Sullivan realized he had only begun. Continuing to support only busi¬ nesses that would hire African-Americans, Sullivan began to train the new employees, who were being placed in jobs for which they had not been sufficiently educated.

His projects came to the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (see no. 91), who devel¬ oped a new department for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — Opera¬ tion Breadbasket — which, under the lead¬ership of Rev. Jesse Jackson (see no. 99), supported the hiring and training of African- Americans in all the nation’s major cities.

Meanwhile, Sullivan was gathering funds from his congregation to form a new organization, the Opportunities Industri¬ alization Centers of America (OIC), which employed African-Amer¬ icans as trainers for oth¬ ers entering the work¬ force. The more Sullivan worked, the more he saw was needed.

After finding jobs for African- Americans, training these new employees, affecting the strongest civil rights organiza¬ tions in the nation, and employing a staff of his own, Sullivan saw it was necessary to take African-Americans further into the business of doing business: “We’re going to have to develop literally thousands of entre¬ preneurs who know business for business’ sake.” Sullivan then began a venture capital company.

His congregation invested in shopping plazas, garment factories, aero¬ space enterprises and apartment complexes — all owned by African-Americans.Sullivan’s own business sense led him to the board of directors at General Motors in 1971, and allowed him to develop “the Sul¬ livan Principles,” which shaped US policy against apartheid in South Africa.

With the help of these principles, South African pris¬ oners were freed, and American businesses that indirectly fed apartheid by feeding the South African economy pulled their sup¬ port. The boycott, though it hurt South Africa’s black consumers, led ultimately to the collapse of apartheid, making a multira¬ cial democracy possible.