CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Rev. Leon Sullivan, who grew up poor on Charleston's East End, played a major role in organizing the economic boycotts that helped end the apartheid regime in South Africa and free Nelson Mandela, who died on Dec. 5 at age 95.
Sullivan developed principles of equality that were adopted by more than 100 American corporations that eventually ceased operations in South Africa.
"Many West Virginians missed the fact that Leon Sullivan was one of the key architects of the plan to dismantle apartheid," the Rev. Matthew Watts, minister at the Grace Bible Church on Charleston's West Side, said last week. "Most people don't know how closely Reverend Sullivan was connected to Nelson Mandela.
"When he went to South Africa in early 1977, when he was working for General Motors, he met with [the] Rev. Desmond Tutu and other leaders. He was not convinced that economic sanctions were right, that they would hurt the poor people there. He was going to say, 'Let's not support this action.'"
But Sullivan, a member of the board of directors of General Motors, changed his mind before his trip back home.
"When he got to the airport," Watts said, "they took him in a dirty back room and made him strip down to his underpants. People were laughing at him."
Sullivan told Watts, "I asked them, 'Why are you doing this?' They said, 'Because we can.'"
"When he came back on the plane, he thought about this and decided apartheid had to be dismantled," Watts said. "He decided General Motors could lead the way, using their economic clout with all the other companies that did business with General Motors.
Sullivan first announced the "Principles of Equal Rights for United States Firms in the Republic of South Africa" on April 1, 1977. They soon became known as the "Sullivan Principles," and they included:
• Desegregation of restaurants, hotels, factories and offices.
• Fair employment practices and equal pay for comparable work.
• Programs to train blacks and other nonwhites for supervisory and professional positions.
• Increasing the number of black supervisors and managers.
• Improving the quality of life outside work in housing, education, recreation and health facilities.
Initially, a dozen major companies doing business in South Africa supported the Sullivan Principles, including GM, IBM, Mobil, Union Carbide, Ford, Otis Elevator, 3M, American Cyanamid and Citibank.
By 1982, U.S. companies with $500 billion in assets stood behind those principles, and many churches, unions, universities, pension funds and individuals refused to invest in companies that did not subscribe to the Sullivan Principles.
In May 1986, West Virginia became the 17th state to stop investing in companies doing business in South Africa. The state's Investment Board voted unanimously to sell $513 million in bonds from companies operating in either South Africa or Namibia, which it controlled.
West Virginia saw other opposition to apartheid. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the United Mine Workers union opposed importing coal from South Africa, where companies paid miners less than $5 a day.
Anti-apartheid efforts grew internationally. In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Apartheid Act over President Ronald Reagan's veto. Embodying the Sullivan Principles, that act remains on the books today.
After high school, 'he started raising cane about things'