Leon Sullivan

Sunday Gazette-Mail
August 30, 1998

'The tallest tree in the forest'

Civil rights leader Sullivan remembers humble W.Va. roots

By Connie Mabin
The Associate Press

MONTGOMERY - Before he became the 'tallest tree in the forest" of civil rights leaders, before he sat in General Motors' board room, before he penned the Sullivan Principles, and before a Presidential Medal of Freedom hung around his neck, the Rev. Leon Sullivan heard the call.

It was a Sunday evening in 1930, and he was an 8-year-old in West Virginia.

Sullivan had just changed out of his best church suit and ventured across the street to buy a soda.

Now 76, he mimics himself as he tells the story.

"I put a nickel on the counter and sat down and said, 'I want a Coke!'"

The image is still clear in his mind - a black child on Charleston's East End, looking the white store owner in the eye, asking for drink in the days of segregation.

"I can still see him today," Sullivan says. "His eyes were blazing, his face got red. He said, 'Get on your feet, black boy! You can't sit down here.'"

Sullivan pauses, contemplating the moment.

"That was my first real confrontation with segregation and black and white," he says. "So I decided ... that I was going to stand up against that kind of thing the rest of my life."

Decades after silently becoming one of the most influential civil rights figures in history, Sullivan is finally telling his story to a Charleston film company. The documentary "A Principled Man: Rev. Leon Sullivan" is set for February 2000 release.

The film recaps Sullivan's accomplishments, beginning with his days growing up in West Virginia.

Sullivan was born Oct. 16, 1922, in a dirt alley known as Washington Court. His parents divorced when he was 3 and he grew up an only child. He was poor, but he doesn't complain about it.

"God puts us in situations for specific reasons," he reasons.

"He was an ordinary child when we grew up," said friend James Randall, who still lives in Charleston. "We had no idea he would grow up to be an extraordinary man."

As a teen-ager, Sullivan - who now stands 6 feet 5 inches tall - towered over his playmates and was feared as an opponent on the basketball court.

"Leon was an outstanding basketball player and football player. He was so tall. He had those legs that went on and on," Randall said.

By the time the boys reached Garnet High School, there was talk of Sullivan playing professional basketball. He even won an athletic scholarship to then all-black West Virginia State College.

But hoop dreams were quickly replaced by something else, and everyone around Sullivan noticed.

"I knew there was a purpose early on. Early on I would write poetry about the advancement of blacks and that sort of thing," he said.

Sullivan became a leader in school and at church, developing an interest in social issues and speaking to fellow students about civil rights. He was elected governor at Negro Boys State Camp, a program sponsored by the American Legion that taught black high school students about American government.

"I saw in about the 11th grade that he would be a real leader," Randall said.

The Rev. James J. Gilmer, another childhood friend, remembers hearing Sullivan speak at his high school graduation about equality and peace.

"He was a contemporary," Gilmer said. "I didn't know then what Leon would go on to do, but I knew he would make some kind of difference in the world."

Sullivan's junior year in college marked two milestones: He was injured and lost his scholarship. And he decided to become a minister.

Giving up his education was not an option, so Sullivan worked days at the Naval Ordnance Plant and attended classes at night to pay tuition. On Sundays, he preached at First Baptist Church in Montgomery and another church in Vandalia.

"He was a young man then. He preached for us a little over a year. He was excellent," said Leon Avery, 74, of Montgomery.

Avery's memory is limited because of a recent stroke, but he says he will never forget the voice of the young Baptist preacher.

"I don't remember quite as well as I used to, but I remember he was inspiring because of what he said and how he said it," he said.

After graduating in 1943, Sullivan moved to Harlem, N.Y, where he studied under Adam Clayton Powell. On a blind date there, Sullivan met his wife, a woman whom he still calls "Amazing Grace."

"That was the work of God as well," Sullivan said.

Seven years later, Sullivan and his wife moved to Philadelphia where he became the pastor at Zion Baptist Church.

The Philadelphia years

Under Sullivan, membership at Zion grew tenfold, from 600 to 6,000 members.

He grew, too.

In the early 1960s, Sullivan organized a boycott of all Philadelphia companies that would not hire blacks. The slogan: "Don't buy where you don't work."

"I decided that we could not, in good moral conscience, remain silent so our children could not work where we buy," Sullivan said.

The boycotts worked and jobs eventually were offered to people of all races, but many did not have the necessary skills required for the openings.

"In order to fulfill my protest, I had to create programs for progress. So out of it came OIC, Opportunities Industrialization Center," Sullivan said.

The first OIC opened in Philadelphia in 1965. A year later, the second opened in Charleston with help from Gilmer.

"It was the salvation of this country," Gilmer said. "We had complete turmoil in our big cities and he kept these youths off the streets. OIC came at the right time with his philosophy of self-help. It helped a lot of people and impacted a lot of people right here in Charleston."

To date, about 1.5 million people of all races have been trained in 142 centers worldwide.

The boycotts and the OIC thrust Sullivan into the spotlight for the first time. He soon became the envy of other young civil rights activists, including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr. King, whom Sullivan remembers as a man of great ambition, wanted Sullivan to help him develop an economic strategy to fight racism.

"He was only a youngster then. Of course he went on to do many great things," Sullivan said.

Jackson, who was in Charleston last week to promote a rally for Appalachia's poor, said Sullivan was a major influence on him.

"He is perhaps the tallest tree in the forest because he has lived so long, and he is a source of our ancestry and of our thriving traditions," Jackson said.

The principle years

Sullivan continued his work against inequality from Philadelphia, focusing on economics. The title of his 1968 book, "Build, Brother, Build," expressed his stance against the "burn, baby, bum" philosophy of the time.

In 1971, Sullivan became the first black board member at General Motors Corp.

And in 1977, he wrote rules promoting equality for all employees called the Sullivan Principles. He describes them as "a code that companies of America and the world came to follow to end apartheid peacefully, starting with the workplace."

Sullivan convinced GM and 11 other corporations to pull out of South Africa until apartheid ended.

Today, Rod Gilleum is General Motors' vice president of public policy and diversity initiatives. He was secretary to the board when Sullivan introduced his principles - then considered bold demands. Many felt "outside the comfort zone," Gilleum said, but "at the end of the day it's the right thing to do, and that's leadership."

Today, the principles are common practice in the corporate world.

"Government can't do it all," Sullivan said. "Corporations must contribute to the culture of peace."

Going back to his roots

Sullivan now lives in Phoenix, where his International Foundation for Education and Self-Help is based. It is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and promotes democracy around the world.

Hundreds of teachers and bankers have been sent to 12 African countries, and Sullivan is currently helping Liberia recover from seven years of civil war.

"Just no one has trained the amount of youth to build the schools and work in Africa as Leon Sullivan," Jackson said.

Sullivan has been bothered recently with health problems and fatigue, but he refuses to slow down.

"I'll do this as long as [God] tells me to do this, but I'm ready for Him to say 'stop this,'" he joked. "You get tired."

Sullivan has begun passing duties on to his children Hope, Julie and Howard.

Hope Sullivan is director of government relations for OIC and helps her father plan the annual African- African-American Summit, a meeting of world leaders who discuss improving the continent.

She has inherited her father's virtues and tries to pass them on.

"As a parent, I try to raise my daughter to live her life in such a way she can benefit other people, and seeing what I do, she sees this is not just a family tradition for us; it's a way of life," Ms. Sullivan said.

She said she never realized how important her father's work was until she went to Africa.

"When I go to Africa with him and I can actually see all the people who have been helped by him and I run into all of these little kids named Leon Sullivan, I am immensely proud of him. I can't even really articulate it."

Sullivan has 50 honorary degrees. Life magazine named him one of the nation's 100 leading citizens in 1963, and in 1965 he was named West Virginian of the Year by the Sunday Gazette-Mail of Charleston. Despite his fame, Sullivan shuns attention. He has waited decades to let someone tell his story.

"I haven't talked that much because I want to show that the results of what I do speak louder than words," he said. "But now I am talking to you because I think God is telling me it's time. I have to show the world because my time here is limited and he has told me that."

African Americans

West Virginia Archives and History