"The Lion of Zion": Leon H. Sullivan and the Pursuit of Social and Economic Justice

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INTRODUCTION

  I was beholden to no one but God, Zion [Baptist Church], and
  [my wife] Grace. My church made me free, so much so that in
  Philadelphia, I was called "the Lion of Zion."
  --Leon H. Sullivan, 1998 (1)

In recounting the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, there are some locations that cannot be left out of the story. Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, and Lowndes County, Alabama; Jackson and Greenwood, Mississippi; Albany and Atlanta, Georgia, are places that are essential to the story of "the Movement." While many would add Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the horrible murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner at the beginning of the "Freedom Summer" campaigns in June 1964, it is likely that few would make room for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the list of cities that contributed to the end of apartheid, American style.

Adding the "City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection" to the overall story of the Civil Rights Movement, however, would allow historians and other researchers to address a perspective that has arisen among some researchers of the most important movement for social change in the United States in the 20th century. Some historians and social scientists have raised the issue of the "unfinished business" or "lost promise" of the Civil Rights Movement. These authors suggest that rather than pursuing issues of "economic justice" that were associated with the Communist Party and the organized labor movement in the 1930s and in World War II, the NAACP and other civil rights organizations decided to pursue the desegregation of public education and accommodations and black voting rights. These authors note that it was only in the last years of his life that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., took up the issue of economic and employment discrimination with his support of the Memphis sanitation workers' strike and the "Poor People's Campaign" in 1967 and 1968. With the advent of the Black Power Movement, the civil rights coalition splintered and demands for economic justice were drowned out in the cries for Black Power, Chicano Power, Women's and Gay Liberation; and the rise of "identity politics" in the 1970s. (2)

The public career of Rev. Leon H. Sullivan, the pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia, not only involved direct connections with civil rights campaigns launched by the NAACP and Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), but also focused on economic justice issues for African American workers, the expansion of black business enterprises, and the internationalization of the social justice and economic empowerment issues closely associated with the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. In the wake of the launching of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, African American ministers in Philadelphia organized a boycott of businesses that refused to hire black and other minority workers. Between 1960 and 1963 the "Selective Patronage Campaign" led by Rev. Leon Sullivan and the "400 Ministers" was successful in opening up employment opportunities for black workers in hundreds of businesses that previously hired "whites only." But what happened in Philadelphia inspired boycotts in New York City and in other northern cities, and the movement for economic justice for decades. "As a result of the success of the selective patronage program in Philadelphia," Sullivan recalled, "I came to know Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an associate and friend." More importantly, "the concept of selective patronage became the 'economic arm' of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference" with the launching of "Operation Breadbasket" in 1967 under the leadership of Rev. Jesse Jackson, who subsequently organized People United to Save Humanity (PUSH). (3)

The successful boycott led to an increase in employment opportunities for African Americans in Philadelphia, but the problem soon arose of the lack of availability of black workers with the skills and training needed by local industries. …