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Leon Sullivan


The Reverend Leon Howard Sullivan (October 16, 1922-April 24, 2001) was born in Charleston. Sullivan was an African-American preacher and social activist who led international efforts to promote nonviolent social and economic change. A graduate of Garnet High School and West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University) (1943), Sullivan received his theological training at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. After serving under the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell in Harlem, Sullivan began his first pastorate at a church in South Orange, New Jersey. In 1950, he began a 38-year ministry at Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia. The church became one of the nation’s largest congregations.

In 1971, Sullivan was appointed to the board of directors of General Motors, the first African-American to serve there. In 1977, Sullivan initiated the original Sullivan Principles, a code of conduct for companies operating in South Africa. GM, as well as other multinational companies, adopted the Sullivan Principles. The Principles were among the most effective efforts to end the system of apartheid or racial separation. In November 1999, the United Nations adopted the ‘‘Global Sullivan Principles’’ as an international corporate code of conduct.

Convinced that the oppressed need a ‘‘hand up, not a handout,’’ Sullivan founded the Opportunities Industrialization Centers, which created jobs in about 70 U.S. cities and 15 African countries, the Philippines, and Poland. He was the founder of the biennial African-American Summit, a gathering of leaders from the U.S. and African nations.

Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Sullivan was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991 and received honorary degrees from more than 50 colleges and universities. In August 2000, the city of Charleston honored him by renaming a major thoroughfare Leon Sullivan Way. Sullivan died of leukemia in Scottsdale, Arizona,

Written by Diana Sole Walko


  1. Sullivan, Leon H. Alternatives to Despair. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1972.

  2. Sullivan, Leon H. America is Theirs and Other Poems. New York: Sayle & Wimmer, 1948.

  3. Sullivan, Leon H. Build, Brother, Build. Philadelphia: Macae Smith Co., 1969.

  4. Sullivan, Leon H. Moving Mountains: The Principles and Purposes of Leon Sullivan. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1998.