Reverend Sullivan has long been recognized as a man of unparalleled vision and action. In 1963, Life Magazine cited Reverend Sullivan as one of the 100 outstanding young adults in the United States and, indeed, he went on to become one of the most outstanding people not only in the United States, but also throughout the world.
In addition to holding honorary doctorate degrees from over 50 colleges and universities, Reverend Sullivan was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991 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”; and in December 1999 he received the Eleanor Roosevelt Award from President Bill Clinton who recognized Reverend Sullivan ’s humanitarian efforts around the world.
Born in Charleston, West Virginia, Sullivan became a Baptist minister at age 18 and eventually moved to Philadelphia to become pastor of the Zion Baptist Church in 1950. From the pulpit, he could clearly see the needs of his community. 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.
The boycott opened up more than 4,400 jobs to African Americans, yet many still needed to be trained and prepared for those jobs. In response, Reverend Sullivan founded the very first Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) in 1964, in an abandoned jailhouse in Philadelphia. The OIC provided job and life skills training and matched its graduates up with the employment needs of Philadelphia businesses. The undertaking was a huge success, and the programs were replicated in cities across the United States. In 1969, OIC International was created to provide employment-training services on a global scale.
In 1971, Dr. Sullivan became the first African American appointed to the Board of Directors of a Fortune 500 company when he accepted a seat on General Motors’ board. He used his position with GM to launch an international campaign to reform apartheid in South Africa, developing the Sullivan Principles, a code of conduct for human rights and equal opportunity for companies operating in South Africa. The Sullivan Principles are considered one of the most effective efforts to end discrimination against blacks in the workplace in South Africa, thus directly contributing to the dismantling of apartheid.
In 1988, Reverend Sullivan retired from Zion Baptist Church. He was determined to provide a model of self-help and empowerment to the people of Africa. He began using his talent for bringing world leaders together to find solutions to international issues through the establishment of the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH) in order to create and maintain programs and activities in the areas of agriculture, business and economic development, democracy and governance, education and health. These programs were designed to help governments in sub-Saharan Africa reduce poverty and unemployment and build civil societies.
In the late 1990s, Sullivan brought world and business leaders together to expand the successful Sullivan Principles into the Global Sullivan Principles of Social Responsibility. In November 1999, at a special meeting at the United Nations Headquarters, Sullivan and then UN 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 in every country, throughout the world. A man of courage, a servant of the people and above all a man of God, Leon H. Sullivan devoted his life to the well being of others. Reverend Sullivan passed away on April 24, 2001.
Reverend Sullivan authored several books including: America is Theirs, Build Brother Build, Philosophy of a Giant, Alternatives to Despair and his last book in 1998, Moving Mountains. The life of this exceptional man was viewed by the country when an excellent documentary detailing his roots and accomplishments aired on PBS in January 2001, entitled: ” A Principled Man: Rev. Leon Sullivan.” You can learn more about Reverend Sullivan at www.revleonsullivan.org, a website created by the documentary producers.