The Rev. Leon H. Sullivan is a veteran civil rights activist who has been a central figure in the debate over U.S. corporate involvement in South Africa. In 1977, he developed a voluntary code of conduct for U.S. companies operating in that country, pledging them to desegregate their facilities and pay equal wages to blacks. Currently, 135 companies, including General Motors Corp., Mobil Oil Corp. and virtually every other major U.S. employer in that country, are signatories to the Sullivan Principles.
Sullivan, 62, was interviewed last week in his office at the Zion Baptist Church in north Philadelphia by Washington Post staff writer Michael Isikoff.
Q Has there really been racial progress in South Africa as a result of the Sullivan Principles?
A There's no question about it. The principles have created a revolution in industrial race relations in South Africa for black workers, a revolution that has its own momentum. And this is particularly important when you realize that, seven years ago, when I started the principles, a black man was not even considered legally a worker in South Africa and segregation in the plants was total.
Q What specifically is different today?
A Well, it's all very evident if you've been there. The plants were segregated, like in Mississippi. Now plants in American companies are desegregated. And not only in American companies. Now it's happening in other companies from other countries. People said this couldn't happen because it was against the law. And I said, "if enough companies do it, in spite of the law, it will happen."
Q Are American companies making these changes because they believe sincerely that apartheid is wrong, or because they're afraid of the kind of political pressure that you and others will bring on them?
A They're making the changes largely because of the pressures that are on them. When I started the principles, it took two years to get 12 companies to sign up. Two years. And I got all kind of letters from companies telling me they wouldn't support it. They told me to mind my own business, that it wasn't the role of business to get involved in political affairs or to get involved in things that were happening in other countries.
But the pressures of the anti-apartheid movement -- and hopefully some persuasion that I was able to exert -- began to move companies to become signatories to these principles.
Q The advocates of South Africa disinvestment are really saying something very different. They're saying desegregated lunch facilities mean nothing in a country where blacks cannot vote. Many of them say the Sullivan Principles are a sham.
A I would agree with them. Did you hear what I said?
Q You would agree with them? But you just said that they have created a revolution.
A Of course. I would agree with many who would say they are a sham because they don't understand what my objectives are. . . . The principles are a beginning and a process, an evolving process that is strengthened with each step and with each phase.
Now my aim is that the impact of this will become pervasive enough so that, not only American companies, but companies of the world that have South Africa operations will add much, much more to the dismantling of apartheid -- along with other thrusts. Remember, I keep saying 'along with other thrusts.' You must remember that I never saw the principles as being a solution to the apartheid problem in South Africa.
Q Specifically, on the issues raised by the disinvestment campaign: Should legislation be passed at the state and municipal levels requiring disinvestment in companies that do business in South Africa?
A Yes, yes . . . . You must remember that I do not agree with the companies on disinvestment campaigns.
Q But these companies are saying exactly what you're saying. They're saying they are doing good in South Africa by being there.
A But I'm sorry. I'm telling you where I am. I am not representing the companies, I'm representing Leon Sullivan. And I'm using the companies as a strategy. . . . I think we need the disinvestment campaign to keep pressure on the companies.
Q How are your relations with the corporate executives who have signed? How do they like having their company's behavior in part dictated by a black Baptist minister from Philadelphia?
A It doesn't matter what they think about me. I know where I'm going and the only thing I want is the companies to be pushed on my wagon. Then it's up to me to drive them as far as I can to the ultimate objectives.
Q How do you decide whether a company is adhering to the Sullivan principles or not?
A There's a measurement process and there are minimum requirements. . . . These requirements are the nonsegregation of all facilities, equal and fair employment practices, equal pay for equal work. And freedom of association.
Q How much does this whole process cost in terms of doing the measurements?
A About $300,000 a year, and the majority of it goes to the Arthur D. Little Inc. [which audits company compliance].
Q I believe you've supported making the principles mandatory, as has been proposed by Congressman William Gray (D-Pa.). Yet the companies say that would destroy the whole system by bringing in lawyers and tying up the process in bureaucratic red tape.
A That is their opinion. My opinion is . . . the principles would be far more effective if they were made mandatory. Then every company would be required to live up to them. And if they don't, there should be embargoes and sanctions and ultimately the loss of government contracts.
Q Some of the companies that have dropped out say you're engaging in Companies have vast lobbying strength. Vast. They can change presidents of America. Companies can elect United States senators. Companies in foreign countries can determine what happens in foreign countries. -- The Rev. Leon H. Sullivan corporate blackmail, threatening to tar them with the charge of supporting apartheid if they don't do as you say. How do you respond to that?
A I wouldn't call it blackmail. I would say that I'm diligent about my business!
Q These companies say that they're answerable to their stockholders, not the Rev. Leon Sulllivan.
A And I'm answerable to God and my own sense of conscience.
Q You've recently added to the principles, requiring American companies that have signed to lobby to abolish apartheid laws. Is that an appropriate role for American companies operating in a foreign country?
A There's no question I think it is, particularly in a country with such unjust laws. . . . Companies have vast lobbying strength. Vast. They can change presidents of America. Companies can elect United States senators. Companies in foreign countries can determine what happens in foreign countries.
Q Isn't it true that many of these companies are very uncomfortable about this requirement?
A Yes . . . So what? For seven years, I've had people expressing uncomfortable feelings to me on things. I intend to make them uncomfortable. That's the way you get change. But the companies supported the amplification unanimously. Publicly.
Q And privately?
A Well, privately is another matter. Some of them talked to me personally. They say, "Reverend, I think maybe you've gone too far. I don't think we can get too deeply into this kind of thing. Be careful."
Q And you said?
A I have my direction and I'm gonna follow it.
Q How did you get involved in the South Africa issue in the first place?
A Well . . . I've been a part of the civil rights movement all my life. When I was in New York, I was assistant to Adam Clayton Powell when he ran for Congress. I worked with A. Phillip Randolph when he was made president of the March on Washington movement, the first one when Franklin Roosevelt was president . . . .
When I came to Philadelphia 35 years ago, I found a lot of unemployment among black youth, and I began to try to find jobs for them. But segregation was so strong, so prohibiting, that we couldn't get jobs for young blacks in businesses. So I created boycotts . . . I boycotted companies that discriminated against black people, one at a time, until the companies opened up thousands of jobs in Philadelphia to blacks.
During all this process, I got a call from General Motors and they asked me to go on their board of directors in 1971. . . . And one of the first things I ran into was South Africa.
Q You were pro-disinvestment then?
A I held that General Motors should get out of South Africa. I held that view until 1975. I made speeches on the stockholders' board, a major speech, one major speech.
Q What changed your mind? A In 1975, I went to a place called Lesotho, it's a small kingdom surrounded by South Africa. They announced where I would be staying -- which was the Holiday Inn -- and I said if anybody wants to see me, they can. That next day and night, many people came to see me -- black, white, coloreds, Asians. One group was union workers and they asked if I could not get the American companies to be an influence for change in South Africa. They said that it had never been tried before.
When I left South Africa, they took me in a room and stripped me of my clothes, down to my underwear, to look and see what I was taking out. I realized if this could happen to me, in South Africa, even not living there, then what happens to the blacks who live there? The impact on me was devastating.
Q That was when you changed your position?
A It was a change in strategy. Because nothing had moved since I'd made my statement, my great speech calling for General Motors to pull out . I hadn't moved anybody. I thought maybe I could use a strategy that would become a lever, an influence that could grow and develop so that the companies, starting in America, could become a force that would help lead to fundamental changes. I realized that you couldn't jump to the top of the mountain, you had to start at the bottom.
Q Some argue that only a revolution with violence is ultimately going to change the white Afrikaners.
A It might be so, yeah. What I'm striving for is to avoid it. I am in the tradition of Jesus Christ and Gandhi and, I hope, to some extent, Martin Luther King. I hope so, I knew him, and I'm black. I look upon myself as a man of peace who wants to find a way, along with others, to avoid violence.