“It shows how much one individual can do to change lives and societies for the better … He was known and respected throughout the world for the bold and innovative role he played in the global campaign to dismantle the system of apartheid in South Africa.”
Kofin Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations
Imagine, if you will, a larger-than-life personality being forced to lay bare their body to the prodding eyes and hands of a would-be oppressor. It would be hard to see the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Elon Musk, or Vince McMahon being subjected to such an act. Even today, you probably couldn’t picture a person attempting to strip humanity from people such as Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Taylor Swift, or Ellen DeGeneres, all in the spirit of asserting dominance.
Yet, this is where Rev. Dr. Leon Sullivan found himself. Standing at an imposing 6’5″ tall and a United States citizen, an armed, white officer of the law stripped him down while trying to pry his dignity from him. For 1974 South Africa, this was an expected, commonplace occurrence. Add in that he had was traveling home after speaking against the mistreatment of blacks and you yourself are black, you get the sense that a message was being conveyed. There he stood in his underwear vowing to do what he had to in order to right these wrongs.
Being treated this way and seeing other minorities treated poorly was nothing new to the future civil rights activist having grown up in West Virginia in the 20s and 30s. After all, at an early age, he was refused a Coke because he was black and tried to sit at a drugstore counter.
Being black and a US citizen, having something as basic as a cold beverage denied to you comes as no surprise. Even now in 2020, just exchange the word “Coke” for education, adequate health care, above-poverty level pay, accessible housing, or food security and you’ll see the story remains unchanged.
Earning the nickname “The Lion of Zion”, he fought these societal shames from his post as pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia. His work was so fundamental to the rewriting of the black experience in the city and abroad that the city dedicated a portion of north Broad St to him. Armed with the influence that came with being on the Board of Directors at General Motors, he fulfilled the promise he made half-naked in a South African airport to take aim at the Afrikaan-led institution. It is here, in this state of systemic inequities, that organizations like Called to Serve carry on the mantle of Sullivan’s legacy.
Dr. Sullivan believed in self-reliance and self-help as a means to achieve equality — not just for one’s self, but also the black community as a whole. Evidenced by Black Wall Street and Harlem of the 20s and 30s, the black community is strongest when each person is invested in its overall health. To that end, Sullivan established training centers to ensure the viability of the black workforce, put pressure on companies to seek out qualified African American candidates, and developed strategies that promoted long-term economic buoyancy.
With efforts along the Broad-Erie-Germantown corridor, CTS wants to do for Nicetown-Tioga today what Rev. Sullivan aimed to do with Progress Plaza in 1968 — and continues to do so today. We support local independent businesses through mentorship, fiscal sponsorship, and advocacy to local government. This frees them to create more jobs for the surrounding neighborhoods and strengthen our local economy. While many of these entities are owned by black people, as was the case with the Sullivan-backed shopping center, the primary focus is finding stakeholders vested in revitalizing the Nicetown-Tioga community.
The dismantling of injustices like apartheid and creation of economies that work for all do not happen without the concerted efforts of many. Sullivan galvanized multinational corporations and governments around the world against those that sought to dehumanize. Similarly, Called to Serve draws on its relationships with local organizations and officials to renew our community into one that is resilient, inclusive, and Beloved.
In his book “Build, Brother, Build”, Rev. Sullivan surmises that this mission of leveling the playing field was simply an extension of a ministry that spanned nearly 60 years. “They (The 10-36 plan, OIC, and the Selective Patronage initiative) represent for me the transition of my ministry into concrete, living terms. The inspiration for the work came out of the Bible, and the motivation for doing the things done have come out of the desire – perhaps the bedside of a dying grandmother – to do something to help African Americans rise.” One could not have said it better.