Born of humble beginnings in an unpainted clapboard house on an unpaved alley in Charleston, West Virginia, on October 16, 1922, Leon H. Sullivan would move beyond his surroundings and develop into one of the crusaders of the Civil Rights era. From an early age he realized the system was wrong and he wouldn't bow down to it. He began a personal crusade against racial injustice at the age of ten without knowing that he was fighting for civil rights. He would go around to businesses that wouldn't allow him in or to sit at the counter just to test the barriers, to see if one day he would be accepted. That day came during his tenth year of high school when he was studying the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Young Leon entered the "whites only" side of a rundown diner only to be told he could not stay there. He stood and recited the entire Preamble to the Constitution...We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness... The owner of the diner was so impressed, he gave him a free hamburger and donut, telling Leon Sullivan that he could come back and be served anytime. Many times he ate at that diner but unlike the first time, he had to pay like everyone else. "I found with equality you have to pay your way." stated Rev. Sullivan in his book, Build Brother Build.
He became a Baptist minister at age 18 and graduated from West Virginia State College and the Columbia University Union Theological Seminary in New York City on the urging of his mentor, Adam Clayton Powell. While serving as Powell's assistant minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, Leon Sullivan met his soul mate, Grace. They married and had three children, Hope, Julie and Howard, eventually moving to Philadelphia in 1950, where he became the pastor of the Zion Baptist Church, and served as minister becoming known as ”the Lion of Zion" until 1988. During his tenure, he increased the congregation membership to 6,000 and together with other Baptist ministers and their congregations; he was able to persuade corporations to hire thousands of blacks through a quiet civil rights movement known as "Selective Patronage." The concept was simple, "Don't buy where you can't work." The program became so successful that it was brought to the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and inspired Operation Breadbasket headed by Jesse Jackson.
OIC is Born
Among the many other great accomplishments that Rev. Sullivan attained in his lifetime, the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) has been one of the most influential at the community level. His principle of "self-help" is the cornerstone of what OIC stands for today. A center that offers "A Hand Up, not a hand out" to millions of people across the world regardless of race. It is an institution that continues to be the leader in providing education, training, and support services to those that are disadvantaged, unemployed, underemployed, insufficiently skilled or who have discretions in their background that make finding a job and being self-suffient difficult. Opened in an abandoned jailhouse in Philadelphia in 1964, the rundown building was renovated and gave training to the men and women who were just beginning to get in the door at the businesses that a few years earlier would not even consider them.