Leon Sullivan and the church spire


Leon Sullivan, 1922 -2001

There are so many accolades this preacher and civil rights giant received and deserved during his lifetime, that anything I write about him would pale in comparison to the total story.

We in the Philadelphia media remember him as the pastor of Zion Baptist Church in North Philadelphia and as the author of the “Sullivan Principles” – rules governing corporate connections to apartheid South Africa. From his perch on the Board of General Motors, his relentless focus on South Africa’s brutal and oppressive regime helped lead to the ultimate unraveling of apartheid and the rise of South African democracy led by Nelson Mandela.

Here in Philadelphia, he founded a number of organizations designed to improve economic conditions in the city’s most blighted areas. The Opportunities Industrialization Center was one of them.

Leon Sullivan was a giant of a man. Well, I guess that’s obvious from the stuff I’ve written above. But what I mean is, he was a giant. He was 6 foot 5 inches tall. For those of you who know me, you’ll remember that even at my tallest, 5 foot 7 was a stretch. (I’ve shrunk a bit these last years.) So let me set the scene for you.

Zion Baptist Church burned to the ground in 1970. Under Rev. Sullivan’s leadership, funds were raised to rebuild it. And on a Sunday, in 1973 he was going to deliver his first sermon in the rebuilt church. It was also a Sunday when I was assigned as THE street reporter (we only had one covering the weekend) for channel 10. So, I arranged for an interview.

My cameraman was Joe Mayer. And Joe knew a perfect spot where Leon and I could have this interview so that the gleaming, sun drenched spire of Zion Baptist Church would be visible between our heads as we talked to each other. One problem. How could I possibly get my head even with Leon’s? Joe’s answer was for me to stand on the metal camera case for the old 16mm sound cameras we used in those days.

It was a perfect shot. Leon was brilliant and eloquent describing how the church rose from the ashes. I was pleased. What I didn’t know is that prior to setting up the relatively tight shot of our two faces with the spire between them, Joe rolled off some footage in a wide shot tilting down to reveal this short-ass reporter standing on the metal case. Guess which piece of film made it onto the blooper reel at our Christmas party that year?

As for Leon, I continued to see him, meet him and talk to him over the years after my career in broadcasting ended. I had a sales office in Manhattan and Leon and I would often meet by chance at 30th Street station. He was generally heading to Washington and I was off to New York, apparently on trains that left at roughly the same time. I can tell you without hesitation that for all his accomplishments, he was a gentle and humble human being. And it was my great pleasure to have known him. We can certainly say that I looked up to him.