A Tribute to the Rev. Leon Sullivan: 1922-2001

This was the man who started the worldwide movement that smashed apartheid in South Africa. … This was the man who, forty years earlier, led boycotts that forced American businesses to hire minorities. … This was the man who, just last year, created the global Sullivan principles for social, economic and political justice in the twenty-first century.

  1. An old man in a dark room reached out with a long, bony finger, poked a button on a telephone. He picked up the receiver, cradled it between his left shoulder and his ear. At the other end of the line was a man named Jim, an assistant to the president of Harvard University.

    “Hello, Jim? How you feelin’, young man? This is Leon Sullivan, Reverend Leon Sullivan. I don’t know if you recognize the name. …”

    He was seventy-seven years old the day he asked that question, eight months before his death, working feverishly to the end. A handsome man with a nimbus of thinning, salt and pepper curls framing his broad forehead, he wore thick, squarish aviator trifocals that magnified his impish blue eyes, stark against his café au lait complexion. He stood six-feet-five, and his knees nearly touched the desktop; his ankles were swollen, his right shoe was untied, the jacket of his navy-blue suit swam a bit around his neck. He had been battling weariness; a flesh-eating bacterial infection that nearly killed him ten years ago; and the lymphoma that would ultimately take his life on May 1st, 2001.

    “You know me,” Sullivan said, trying again, gesturing in the air with his crippled right hand, ravaged by the bacterial infection that he picked up in Africa—“I’m that big, tall, black fellow on the board of General Motors. I’m the guy, heh heh heh, who messes all around and makes people mad. The Sullivan Principles for South Africa? Well, sir: I am he.”

    His folksy, lilting baritone voice reso...