A protege of Harlem pastor and United States Congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Sullivan became the pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia, PA, in 1950. Working with other African-American pastors, he led a successful boycott of businesses in the black community which would not hire minorities. His mantra: don't buy where you cannot work.
In 1962, he led members of Zion to form the Zion Investment Group which led to major developments in real estate , garment manufacturing and Progress Aeorospace Enterprises, the first black aeorospace company.
But Rev. Sullivan's most recognized contribution was to job training. In 1964 he started the Operations Industrial Center (OIC). By 1969, OIC had trained nearly 20,000 minorities for jobs throughout the country. Ultimately, OIC grew to 66 affiliates throughout thirty states and the District of Columbia. OIC trained for jobs, but also taught life skills to thousands of people who had little or no skills taking them from no skills to sustainable productive lives. By 1969, OIC formed centers in other country formed Operation Industrial Centers International (OICI).
With OIC off the ground, Sullivan built Progress Plaza fulfilling his dream of having the first black owned and developed shopping center.
He convinced the city's Redevelopment Authority to donate land for the project and Rev. Sullivan set out to raise the capital needed to build the shopping center. "So I went to the chairman of the bank and I said, I want a construction loan", he recounts. "He said, well Reverend, you need some equity for something like this. Think about it and come back later in two, three or four years, and let's see what we can do." Rev. Sullivan was already prepared for that challenge, however. "Give me the sack", he told Zion's treasurer, William Downes. "I opened it up and $400,000 worth of equities came out", he describes. "The man's eye glasses fell off his eyes. He came around the table and took my hand and said, Reverend, we can work together." Rev. Sullivan's theory about the power of money to deal with persistent racial inequalities was proving to be correct. Sullivan went on to say, "I found that $400,000 makes a difference in race relations in America!"
The work of Leon Sullivan isn't just seen through the continuation of OIC today. There are any number of African-American pastors and churches whose involvement in economic development and social uplift follows a tradition brought to high relief by Sullivan's work in Philadelphia: Allen A.M.E. Cathedral, in Jamaica, New York; Little Flock Baptist Church and Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan; Windsor Village United Methodist Church, in Houston, Texas; Wheat Street Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, all model both the spiritual nurture and the commitment to economic and social uplift that is reflected by Dr. Sullivan's model with the Zion Baptist Church.
Sullivan joined the board of directors of General Motors in 1971, eventually becoming its first African-American director. He opened the doors to jobs for minorities and black owned dealerships.
In 1988, Sullivan retired from the Zion Baptist Church, moved to Phoenix, Arizona and began working to build relationships between American businesses and developing African countries. He held summits in Africa to help promote cultural and political ties between African-Americans and Africans.
Dr. Sullivan died on April 25, 2001.
Sullivan inspires those of us who understand that the obstacles which face poor people can be solved if we look creatively at all the opportunities that we have. If we take advantage of those opportunities and see not only the present with fresh eyes, but are thoughtful enough to view the future as something that we can create. It doesn't just have to be something that happens to us.
I bet Leon Sullivan would be all over the 'green jobs' movement. He'd already have figured out how many jobs are in the creation of solar panels and wind power. He'd be training people for it and thousands of people would be looking to the future with hope instead of apprehension.
Dr. Sullivan's no longer with us, but I bet some of us can be inspired by him to focus on that future in the same way.