Remembering Leon Sullivan: West Virginia’s civil rights chief |

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: WV News and the West Virginia Black Heritage Festival have teamed up to produce a range of black history and cultural diversity stories over the coming weeks, while also launching the festival’s scholarship fund with a GoFundMe page at / zhh66c to apply.

FAIRMONT, W.Va. (WV News) – The Opportunities Industrialization Center in Fairmont opened in 1975, offering untrained residents the opportunity to acquire the skills they need to properly join the workforce.

Jim Griffin was the center’s first director, known as the OIC, after his employers gave him a six-month leave of absence to start the program from scratch. Although the Fairmont Center is now closed, Griffin said its impact on the community left a lasting legacy, with more than 50 OIC facilities still operating worldwide.

“There were a lot of people we could help run this program,” said Griffin. “Most of the people who came through OIC were lacking skills. They have been able to acquire some basic skills that will help them keep a job, such as: B. Service and computer skills. … There came some people who need a GED and need to acquire the skills they need to be competitive in the competitive world. “

To trace the origins of the OIC, however, one has to look back on an abandoned prison in the basement of an old Philadelphia police station in 1964.

Here, Charleston-born Leon Sullivan started just one of his many projects to improve the African American community in the struggle for civil rights.

Born in 1922, Sullivan first felt his fiery passion for civil rights when he was denied a seat at a drugstore counter in his hometown as a young child. After visiting West Virginia, Sullivan moved to New York City, where he received his Masters in Religion from Columbia University before moving to Philadelphia to become a pastor.

In Philadelphia in 1958, Sullivan began his first foray into the civil rights movement with what he termed “selective patronage”.

Dr. Greg Hinton, a senior professor at Fairmont State University who served as director of the Fairmont OIC until joining law school in 1978, said Sullivan used the power of the free market to improve the career opportunities of his African American people.

“A lot of blacks were out of work in the mid-1960s, so he told people,” Don’t buy where you can’t work, “Hinton said.” The first destination they picked was an establishment with a lot of undeclared business It was Tastykake. When the blacks stopped buying Tastykake, (the company) felt the economic pressure and started hiring them. “

Hinton explained that many of these African Americans still encountered barriers to entry, most notably being underqualified for their careers. Hence, the OIC was created to provide these workers with the skills they need to be competitive in the workforce.

But Sullivan wasn’t finished.

In 1971 he joined the Board of Directors of General Motors, becoming the first black man to sit on the board of directors of a large American company. During his 20 years on the board of directors, he created the so-called “Sullivan Principles”, which acted as a kind of code of ethics for companies.

Sullivan designed these principles with one goal: to get GM and other companies to withdraw from apartheid in South Africa, a goal that has been successful.

“The companies there invested a lot of money to support the racist government. When they signed the principles and withdrew their financial support in South Africa, that was the main reason why apartheid ended in South Africa,” said Hinton.

In the late 1990s, the Global Sullivan Principles were introduced, which built on Sullivan’s existing codes of ethics to cover a wider range of social issues. These principles were officially adopted by the United Nations in 1999.

Hinton, who teaches a business law course at Fairmont State, said he made it a point each semester to draw attention to Sullivan’s principles when he and his class discuss ethics.

“You can have all of these great values ​​and bring your money here, but if you are not given an ethical consideration about what you do as a person, you are not supporting,” Hinton said.

“You may not do (something), but you support the people who do it. … I put a lot of emphasis on ethics in my law degree because something can be legal, but not ethical. With this, Sullivan tried to reach these companies. He said, “You don’t do it, but you give them money to do the bad things that they do.”

Sullivan received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George HW Bush in 1992 and the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights from President Bill Clinton.

While man’s decade-long advocacy of civil rights reverberates around the world, Hinton Sullivan’s enduring legacy is anchored in the Opportunities Industrialization Centers, which are still present in countries like South Africa, Haiti and Poland around the world.

“It’s trickling,” said Hinton. “Here is an unemployed man who cannot get a job because he is not trained. He gets an education and gets a job and then he can take care of his family. When you look at the multiplier effect of the many people who were trained in OIC, got jobs, and were able to send their children to school, to me that is his greatest legacy. “

Sullivan, one of the pillars of the civil rights movement, died in 2001, but his legacy lives on through his work for workers and companies, and he remains a Western Virginian legend.

“He was a role model for other African Americans and for what you could get,” Griffin said. “Here’s a man from West Virginia who went out and actually changed the world. A lot of people don’t know what OIC has been doing across the country. … Only here in West Virginia have we made a footprint that helps African Americans develop skills. It was remarkable and made across the country. “

Fairmont News Editor John Mark Shaver can be reached at 304-844-8485 or [email protected].

Comments are closed.