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April 24, 2001 - Rev. Leon Sullivan Dies At Age 78
By Heath Harrison
July 14, 2013


A pioneer in the civil rights movement and one of the key players in ending South Africa's apartheid system, there have been few West Virginia natives as distinguished and accomplished as the Rev. Leon Sullivan.

Born October 16, 1922, Sullivan grew up in the Washington Court neighborhood of Charleston, an unpaved, dirt alley in one of the city’s poorest sections.

Sullivan’s mother worked as an elevator operator. His father was a janitor at the Virginian Theater on nearby Lee Street. His parents divorced when he was three, and, as a child, Sullivan supported himself as a child by collecting discarded bottles and reselling them.

He spoke frequently of his experience growing up as an African-American in a segregated community, and being forced to walk on “the colored side of the street.”

Sullivan said one of the defining moments of his life occurred at the age of 8, when he tried to sit down and buy a soda at a white lunch counter in a Capitol Street pharmacy.

In his 1969 memoir, he recalled the clerk saying 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,” Sullivan said of the incident.

Sullivan attended Charleston's Garnet High School for blacks and won a basketball and football scholarship to West Virginia State College (an all-black school at the time) in 1939. However, an injury ended his athletic career and he paid his way through college by working in a local steel mill.

Sullivan became a Baptist minister at the age of 18 and worked part-time in the church while in college. In 1943, minister Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. visited Charleston. Sullivan was convinced by Powell to move to New York to attend the Union Theological Seminary. There, he served as Powell’s assistant minister at the Abyssinnian Baptist Church.

While in New York, Sullivan took on his first major role in the civil rights movement, by helping to organize a march on Washington, D.C. in the early 1940s. In 1950, he moved to Philadelphia, where he took over the Zion Baptist Church, which grew exponentially under his leadership and became one of the nation’s largest congregations. There, he began organizing for civil rights in the region.

Sullivan believed that the key to overcoming poverty and oppression was to provide the tools for people to help themselves. Facing few positive responses from companies to his proposals, Sullivan organized the "selective patronage" movement, in which African-Americans boycotted businesses who would not hire from their community. “Don’t buy where you don’t work,” was the campaign’s slogan. As Philadelphia had a 20 percent black population, the boycott’s impact was felt and the campaign was a success.

The boycotts were so effective that they were noticed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who met with Sullivan for organizing advice for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s efforts.

Another of Sullivan’s initiatives was the creation of Opportunities Industrialization Centers (OIC), community centers which provided job and life skills to their graduates. The first OIC center was launched in Philadelphia. The second was located in Sullivan’s birthplace of Charleston.

In 1971, Sullivan was asked to join the board of General Motors, serving as the first African-American on the board of a major corporation. He held the position for 20 years.

In 1977, Sullivan focused his efforts on ending South Africa’s apartheid system of racial segregation, developing the Sullivan Principles. The principles served as a code of conduct for companies doing business, with regards to race both inside and outside the workplace. The principles were directly at odds with the apartheid system.

Sullivan used his position at GM to successfully lobby the company as well as others to stop doing business with South Africa under apartheid.

“Starting with the work place, I tightened the screws step by step and raised the bar step by step," Sullivan said of his approach. “Eventually, I got to the point where I said that companies must practice corporate civil disobedience against the laws and I threatened South Africa and said, in two years, Mandela must be freed, apartheid must end, and blacks must vote or else I'll bring every American company I can out of South Africa.”

In his later years, Sullivan received many honors for his life’s work. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush awarded him the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1999, President Bill Clinton presented Sullivan with the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights.

In 2000, a year before his death, the city of Charleston honored the reverend by renaming Broad Street, located near his childhood home, as Leon Sullivan Way.

His final years plagued by ill health, Sullivan died of leukemia on April 24, 2001 in Scottsdale, Ariz. at the age of 78. He was buried in Greenwood Memory Lawn Cemetery in Phoenix.

"He was one of West Virginia's great, great citizens,” U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller said of his passing. “He was an extraordinary leader of people. He was also an extraordinarily kind, thoughtful presence with a lot of humor, powerful yet deeply humane and wonderful to be with."

This week’s video contains a 2001 WCHS report on Sullivan’s passing. The second half consists of a silent montage, used in broadcasts at the time, featuring key moments in his life, including the renaming of Broad Street and President Bush awarding him the Medal of Freedom.

Remember When: April 24, 2001 - Rev. Leon Sullivan Dies At Age 78

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