Reverend Dr. Leon H. Sullivan

Black History Month is the time we celebrate the Black men and women whose accomplishments have moved America closer to its unfulfilled promise of equality for all Americans. Every February, we come together to celebrate historical giants: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Frederick Douglass. All of whom are worthy of our praise and should be included in every history book. Yet there are so many more amazing people to celebrate. African American heroes, who shook mountains to advance our fight for equality.

Reverend Dr. Leon Sullivan is one of those heroes. Dr. Sullivan was one of the most impactful Black Americans, yet few know his story. He was affectionally known as the “Lion of Zion”. He led Zion Baptist Church and used his pulpit to encourage and empower people. He battled racism throughout his life. He was strategic and understood how to make real change happen. He led the initiative that ultimately broke the back of apartheid — the legal system of racial segregation — in South Africa. He refused to accept anything less than full citizenship and knew how to wield that vision to empower Black people in Philadelphia and around the world.

A Giant in Black History

Born in 1922 in West Virginia, Sullivan became a minister at the young age of 18. After serving with another African American legend, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, who was also pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, Sullivan took an active role in the burgeoning civil rights movement. Reverend Sullivan focused on economic empowerment and self-sufficiency.

Leon Sullivan was a man of action.

Philadelphia suffered double digit unemployment and poverty in the 60’s, much as it does today. During this era, Philadelphia businesses did not hire African Americans. In response, Rev. Dr. Sullivan launched the selective patronage campaign which was designed to use Black Philadelphia’s purchasing power to boycott companies that did not hire African Americans.

Leon Sullivan asked Philadelphia businesses to consider young Black applicants for open positions. After only two businesses complied, he launched the selective patronage campaign with the slogan: “Don’t buy where you can’t work”. Within four (4) years, the selective patronage campaign changed the landscape, resulting in equal consideration and jobs for Black Philadelphia.

It was not enough to demand that Black applicants be considered by employers, Dr. Sullivan wanted to ensure that Black Philadelphians were qualified, ready to compete and successfully perform in these jobs. Thus, the Opportunities Industrialization Center, Inc., better known as Philadelphia OIC, was born with the singular mission to provide vocational training, education, and life skills to unemployed and underemployed people. OIC continues that charge to this day, serving low-income people who want and deserve an opportunity at a better life. Simply stated, the purpose of OIC is to “Help People Help Themselves. Dr. Sullivan knew that low-income Philadelphians given proper education and training, would improve their lives and their communities.

In the early days, OIC offered a two phased approach. Students initially took courses in African American history, basic reading, writing, and arithmetic, consumer education, life skills, and more. Thereafter students would embark upon a variety of technical training programs to prepare them to obtain good-paying jobs in manufacturing.

Leon Sullivan did not just organize OIC, he was its champion and the champion for Black Philadelphia. He secured financial and instructional support and negotiated with businesses to hire OIC graduates. Fifty-seven years later, OIC’s mission and purpose remains unchanged.

It is designed to help the unemployed and underemployed obtain the education, training and other skills and tools necessary to become independent and self-reliant.

One man, one mission! Leon Sullivan did not accept no! He did not allow others to define his opportunities. When said no, he stood tall for Black Philadelphia and drove forward to success.

Too often, when told no, we accept it. Too often we let the limitations of others become our limitations. Rev. Dr. Leon Sullivan did not allow others to stand in his way. His vision was expansive. He was relentless. He was determined. The result, he changed lives! His legacy continues to change lives.

Regrettably, high unemployment and poverty still plague Philadelphia. In the face of today’s challenges when it feels overwhelming. when it feels like we can’t change poverty or racism, remember the Lion of Zion. Remember the Power of One. Remember, we control our destiny!

Judge Renée Cardwell Hughes

President & CEO

Philadelphia OIC

This commentary was originally published in The Philadelphia Tribune on February 9, 2021.

Storied Workforce Development agency eradicating poverty in Philadelphia.