Medal of Freedom
Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient Leon Sullivan

Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient Rev. Leon Howard Sullivan

Awarded by
President George Bush
November 18, 1991

The Reverend Leon Sullivan, a civil rights leader and pastor emeritus of the Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia, has devoted his life to the causes of liberty and justice. Reverend Sullivan founded the Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America, one of the largest and most prestigious job training organizations in the world. He later founded the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help. In 1971, Leon Sullivan was elected to the Board of Directors of General Motors, becoming the first black American to participate in the direction of a U.S. auto company. America honors this man of principle, who in word and example has shown so many people the way to freedom.

Biography     Reverend Dr. Leon Howard Sullivan was born on October 16, 1922, to Charles and Helen Sullivan in Charleston, West Virginia. He was educated at West Virginia State University, Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary.

Although Sullivan started as a minister at the age of 19, his actual quest for equal rights for all people would begin at the age of 10. He was told by a white man who was standing behind a Coca-Cola machine that he was not permitted to sit down at the lunch counter because of the color of his skin. "Black boy, stand on your feet. You can't sit down here," the man said. For the remainder of his life, Sullivan would indeed "stand up". He would stand up for justice, equal rights and equal employment opportunities for all citizens. He would also stand up for the impoverished, vulnerable and victimized people of the world.

During his lifetime he impacted millions of people throughout the world, particularly in the United States and Africa, by advocating self-help principles of empowerment, community development and self-reliance. Under the mentorship of A. Phillip Randolph, who led the first March on Washington that bolstered the movement for equal rights for minorities, Sullivan developed his strategy of nonviolent, direct action and his ideas on the development of communities through community-based organizations. In the late 1950s and early 60s, Sullivan initiated a successful "Selective Patronage" operation in Philadelphia to boycott companies that did not offer employment opportunities to black men and women. Later, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would adopt the highly successful program and transform it into the Operation Breadbasket program for implementation nationwide.

As job opportunities began to open up, Sullivan realized that a trained workforce did not exist to fill them. In 1964, as a response to this crisis, he founded the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) in an abandoned jailhouse in a north Philadelphia ghetto. OIC provided employment training and retraining for those who lacked the necessary work skills. The undertaking was a huge success, and in 1969, OIC International was created to provide employment-training services on a global scale. The efforts of OIC International are focused predominantly in Sub-Saharan Africa, but centers exist in Europe, Central America and asia as well. Currently, there are 46 active centers in 17 countries around the world.

Sullivan also founded the Progress Investment Associates (PIA), as well as the Zion Nonprofit Charitable Trust (ZNCT), to fund housing, shopping, human services, educational and other nonprofit ventures for inner-city dwellers. He also established inner-city retirement and assisted-living complexes in Philadelphia and other cities throughout the country, dubbed Opportunities Towers.

Sullivan was able to establish a format for dialogue that would set the stage for the economic and civil liberation of people around the world. As the first Black member on the board of the General Motors Corporation (G.M.), he secured the support of G.M. in the development of the unprecendented Sullivan Principles, a code of conduct written in 1977 for American businesses operating in South Africa. The Principles forced the powerful elite to address the disparity that exists between the wealthy and impoverished, and soon after their creation G.M. and other corporations began to pull out of South Africa until apartheid came to an end in 1994. Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, recognized Sullivan not only as a friend but also as a man who stood alone on his undying faith in God and his belief that a free South Africa would emerge from the ashes of despair.

But above all, Sullivan was a Baptist preacher. In his late teens, He was the pastor of two churches in West Virginia before going on to pursue his education and ministry in New York. This led to serving at the Abyssinian Church, and later a church in South Orange, New Jersey before being called in 1950 to the Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia. Known as the "Lion of Zion," he served there until 1988 and during his 38 years at Zion the congregation grew from 600 to 6,000 people. Zion Baptist Church was the base for his eventual work in job training and community development.

Not content to leave his mark on the lives of thousands of people in our nation, Sullivan was determined to provide a model of self-help and empowerment to the people of Africa. In June of 1988 he became Pastor Emeritus in order to focus on the work of OIC International and to expand the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH), which he founded in 1983. IFESH is a non-profit organization based in Phoenix, AZ which has been successful in training over 100,000 skilled workers, 100,000 newly developed farmers and five million people in literacy tied to health education.

In the late 1990s, Sullivan brought world and business leaders together to expand the successful Sullivan Principles into the Global Sullivan Principles of Corporate Social Responsibility. In November of 1999, at a special meeting at the United Nations Headquarters, Sullivan and U.N. 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 not only in Africa but everywhere in the world where they are ignored.

Sullivan published several books over the last 45 years, including America is Theirs, Build Brother Build, Philosophy of a Giant, Alternatives to Despair and Moving Mountains. These books contain his life story, sermons, accomplishments, philosophies and dreams for the future.

Sullivan has been the recipient of many awards throughout his life. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Former President George Bush in 1992 , the Notre Dame Award in 1999 for his contribution to the welfare of humanity, the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award by Former President Clinton in 1999, the NAACP Spingarn Award, the Kappa Alpha Psi Laurel Wreath and more than fifty doctoral degrees.

A man of courage, a servant of the people and above all a man of God, Rev. Dr. Sullivan devoted his life to the well-being of others. He passed away on April 24, 2001.