The day after General Motors Corp. named the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan to its board of directors in 1971, former president Lyndon Johnson phoned him at Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia and said, "Leon, this is Lyndon. What's good for General Motors now really is good for America."
Sullivan related the incident on NBC's "Meet the Press" in March 1971, two months after becoming the first black director of an auto manufacturer -- and, he said later, "one of the first, if not the first, truly public directors to go on the board of a large corporation."
But few could have foreseen the impact on South Africa and on large corporations the world over that resulted from Sullivan achieving a celebrity status, with his views about South Africa put before millions of Americans.
He and GM Chairman James M. Roche, who had recruited him, "were jointly pictured on the cover of Jet," but "Sullivan alone graced the cover of Business Week," E.J. Kahn noted in a May 1979 article in The New Yorker.
In his "Meet the Press" appearance, Sullivan said:
"I believe that apartheid has to come to an end. I believe that America, itself, with its industries and business, can no longer underwrite apartheid, whether it be General Motors, Chrysler, Ford, or 300 other companies that are there . . . .
"I am saying that the United States government ought to declare an economic boycott against the Union of South Africa."
Two months after that TV appearance, GM held its annual stockholder meeting in Detroit. It was the 59th round for patriarchal board member Charles Stewart Mott, 95, and the first for Sullivan, who was born -- in a slum in Charleston, W. Va. -- after Mott had been a director for nearly a decade.
Mott had "never heard any GM director publicly dissent from any of the expressed views of management," Kahn wrote. But on that day in May, the neophyte director eloquently broke with tradition.
The issue was a church resolution to compel GM to leave South Africa -- the first resolution of its kind to come to a shareholders' vote. Management had urged defeat of the proposal, and the sponsor, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, had no thought that it would pass.
After a courtesy warning to his fellow directors that he would vote for the resolution, Sullivan rose to his great height -- 6 feet 5 -- to make an impassioned speech.
"American industry cannot morally continue to do business in a country that so blatantly and ruthlessly and clearly maintains such dehumanizing practices against such large numbers of its people," he said. "I hear voices say to me, 'Things will work out in time -- things are getting better -- let us go slow on this matter!'
"And I ask, why does the world always want to go slow when the rights of black men are at stake? . . . . I want to go on record, for all to know, that I will continue to pursue my desire that American enterprises, including General Motors, withdraw from the Union of South Africa until clear changes have been made in the practices, the policies of that government as they pertain to the treatment of blacks and other non-whites . . . .
"And although I know the position I take will lose today, you can be sure that I shall continue to pursue it tomorrow until black people in the Union of South Africa are free."
The motion got 1.29 percent of the votes cast. But the speech put in motion the chain of events that led in 1977 to the Sullivan Principles to guide corporations doing business in South Africa. It took Sullivan more than a year to persuade 10 corporations to join GM and IBM in signing the principles, but the firms were key because they accounted for more than half of U.S. corporate investment in South Africa.
Sullivan's passport out of his slum birthplace was an athletic scholarship at West Virginia State College, where he played basketball and football. He was 19 when he was ordained. In 1947, Columbia University awarded him a master's degree in religion.
In 1950, he became pastor of Zion Baptist. Eight years later, he organized boycotts of Philadelphia companies that discriminated against blacks. In 1964, he founded and became national director of the Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America.
In 1974, the Rev. Jesse Jackson told the Wall Street Journal: "He comes as close as any man to being my idol."THE SULLIVAN PRINCIPLES
A six-point program of fair employment practices promoted by the Rev. Leon Sullivan was first adopted by 12 major U.S. corporations in 1977. The Sullivan Principles call for:
Integration of all company facilities.
Establishment of equal and fair employment practices.
Equal pay for employes performing equal or comparable work for the same period of time.
Development of training programs for nonwhites.
An increase in the number of blacks in managerial positions.
Improvment in housing, transportation, education and health facilities for employes.