Leon Sullivan

By: Nick Cannone

Life and Accomplishments

Leon Sullivan was born in 1922 in Charleston, West Virginia. As the son of a janitor, Sullivan grew up in a poor and very racist environment. This led him to his life as a social activist at a very early age. After high school, Sullivan decided to become a minister, as he believed that the church could play a major role in ending the discrimination of African Americans. Sullivan spent much of his life in the Northeastern United States organizing successful peaceful protests such as the one in 1958 demanding that businesses adopt fair employment policies. As a result of the success of this campaign and the lack of skilled African American workers, Sullivan created the Opportunities Industrialization Center which gave Africans the necessary skills to hold corporate jobs not only in the United States but across the globe. This campaign presented Sullivan with opportunity to serve on the board of directors of General Motors in 1971. As an accomplished African American, Sullivan visited South Africa in 1975 where he was arrested and embarrassed by white police officers. Sullivan returned home angry and motivated. With the support of many large corporations, Leon created the Sullivan Principles, a set of rules for Americans doing business with South Africa. The seven principles include: desegregation of all work facilities, equal and fair employment policies, equal pay, training programs to prepare blacks for employment, an increase in black managers and supervisors, improvement of black workers’ living conditions, and that all companies eliminate customs that sustain apartheid. In the early 1980's, Sullivan realized that even though American companies were following the principles, there was really no effect on South Africa. In 1985, Sullivan presented the South African government with an ultimatum, that they free Mandela and grant Africans suffrage within two years or else American corporations would withdraw their investments from South Africa. The Sullivan Principles were solidified into law in 1986 with the passage of the Anti-Apartheid Act, and in 1987 when the deadline arrived Sullivan called for American economic withdrawal, and more than seventy companies answered. The decay of apartheid began, and three years later in 1990, Sullivan's requests were realized. He received multiple presidential awards for his work before dying in 2001.


Leon Sullivan brought about mass awareness to the issue of South African Apartheid in the United States. When he began his work, the United States was relatively unaware of the horrendous conditions in South Africa as all of the focus was instead on domestic race relations. In the 1980's, Sullivan transformed the United States citizens into apartheid enemies through his continued efforts. This mass awareness was able to economically batter the South African government. The Sullivan Principles also helped to destroy the South African economy. The increase of American public opinion and awareness of apartheid made it an expectation that American companies withdraw their resources from South Africa. This is very important, as the South African government was losing money and power at a very rapid rate. This weakening of the South African government and economy opened the door for the decline of the South African government.
Rev. Leon Sullivan at the Third African-African American Summit - Senegal

Works Cited

"Leon Howard Sullivan." Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Biography in

Context. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

"Leon H. Sullivan." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2004. Biography in Context. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

"Leon Sullivan." Newsmakers. Detroit: Gale, 2002. Biography in Context. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

"University Libraries." Opportunities Industrialization Centers International, Series II: Executive Directors' Office. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.