His roar will long outlive the Lion of Zion

Posted: April 26, 2001

Last time he was back in Philadelphia, the Rev. Leon Sullivan joked:

"I'm 77 years old, but I keep going, like the bunny in the commercial."

That was last year, and he was wrong - as he knew he would be.

"The Lion of Zion" (Zion Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, that is) is dead.

But what a legacy he has left us:

* The Opportunities Industrialization Centers he founded in Philadelphia and continued to administer as the movement spread worldwide.

* The North Philadelphia apartment complex, Zion Gardens; shopping center, Progress Plaza, and Progress Human Servvices Center - prototypes of inner-city, minority-owned, self-help business, retirement and assisted-living ventures throughout the nation.

* The Sullivan Principles for Fair Employment in South Africa, which helped tear down the walls of apartheid - later expanded into the United Nations-endorsed Global Sullivan Principles of Corporate Social Responsibility.

* The International Foundation for Education and Self-Help, set up to train 100,000 workers and 100,000 new farmers and to provide literacy training for 5 million people in Africa and elsewhere.

This was a man who thought big.

OIC evolved from the awareness that African-Americans needed work-force training for the jobs opened reluctantly by Philadelphia companies that were reeling from Sullivan's "selective patronage" program, based on the threat of boycotts.

OIC's success here led to an expansion nationwide and eventually worldwide. Its 46 active centers in 17 countries, in Africa and elsewhere, have provided skills to more than 3 million people, adding billions of dollars to the world economy.

Sullivan was so successful at raising funds from the world's corporations, that he himself became a corporate figure - first black to serve on a major corporate board when elected a director of General Motors. But he never lost sight of those he was dedicated to uplifting in Philadelphia, Africa and everywhere: the downtrodden who needed self-respect and the ability to improve their lot.

The "poor black boy from West Virginia" became the Lion of Zion. A big man physically, and in every other way, he loved that nickname.

"I can still roar," he roared in a 1999 interview.

Death has silenced Leon Sullivan, but that roar will echo for generations to come. *

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