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For Leon Sullivan, it was a matter of 'principles'

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'

Sullivan grew up in a back alley off of Bradford Street on the East End. He graduated from Garnet High School, earned a bachelor's degree from West Virginia State College in 1943, then earned graduate degrees from Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary.

Sullivan, the first black member ofn GM's board of directors, received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991 from President George H.W. Bush and the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights in 1999 from President Bill Clinton.

Howard L. Spurlock, 85, worked for the U.S. District Courts in West Virginia for 31 years and knew Sullivan well.

"Leon Sullivan was very active," Spurlock said. "After he graduated from Garnet, he started raising cane about things."

Spurlock remembers, "We could not go to theaters like the Lyric or the Rialto. We had the Ferguson Theater on Washington Street. That is where we had to go to see movies.

"Sullivan talked about South Africa a lot, but he never forgot about his home. He never forgot [that] Charleston city leaders renamed Broad Street to Leon Sullivan Way [in August 2000].

Sullivan had already encountered segregation in Charleston, similar to what he would later see in South Africa.

"I was born in a little house at the end of the alley, in the second house in the back alley of the alley," Sullivan said during an interview with this reporter in January 1999. "I did not have any contact with white children at all. I did not know a white person by the first name until I was 19 years old. Halloween night was the only time we would meet white kids. We met in the street and had a big fight."

Sullivan began challenging "whites-only" policies in Charleston.

"I would go in and sit down at restaurants," he said. "They would push me out."

Sullivan remembers being elected governor of black Boys State in 1939. At the time, a separate election was held to be governor of white Boys State.

After the elections, each Boys State governor got a job at the Capitol.

"The white Boys State governor got a job as a page at the Legislature. I got a job cleaning a sewer to help prepare the foundation for some new buildings. I did not like that. Those are the kind of things that made me feel I had to confront the whole system," Sullivan said in 1999.

Speaking to a South African audience in 1997, Sullivan said, "If we look at history, there are very few people who are remembered far, far beyond their years. There is Moses. There is Jesus. I think I should include Martin Luther King.

"But none of them, except Jesus, can take the place of this man in the history of the world," said Sullivan, referring to Mandela.

Speaking after Sullivan, Mandela praised people around the world who had helped bring an end to apartheid.

"They gave us their support, their loyalty, their love," Mandela said. "We won not only because of the sacrifices of people in our country, but because of the support of the international community, particularly the people of the United States."

Reach Paul J. Nyden at or 304-348-5164.


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