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Leon Sullivan: Using the Power We Have

From John Bergen.

During Black History Month, the Race & Privilege Committee invites you to reflect on how Spirit and Scripture have come alive in black history in our city. Each week, we will hear a short story of an important black leader in Philadelphia history, and how their life connects to the Scripture passages for that day. Saints have always been present in Philadelphia history, leading the struggle for racial justice. This week’s story is about O. V. Catto.

In the late 1950s, Philadelphia was stuck. Efforts by the NAACP, the city’s Human Rights Commission, and other professional liberal groups had helped bring some measure of legal equality for Philly’s black residents, but for many poor people of color, the right to eat at a lunch counter didn’t matter if you didn’t have the money to buy lunch.

On February 1, 1960, four black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina began a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. Their actions touched off a movement that spread across the south. Within three weeks, on about this day in February 1960, solidarity pickets began outside a Woolworth’s in West Philly. Although that lunch counter was technically integrated, it sparked off a conversation about the economic needs of black Philadelphians.

Enter Leon Sullivan. Born in West Virginia, Sullivan became the pastor of Zion Baptist Church on North Broad Street in 1950 when he was just 28 years old. Deeply concerned about the needs of his church members, Sullivan would later write, “I long to see the kingdom of God a reality in the everyday lives of men. Some people look for milk and honey in heaven, while I look for ham and eggs on earth.”

Sullivan brought together 400 fellow black pastors (itself not an easy feat) and proposed something simple - a boycott of businesses that would not hire black workers. On June 6, 1960, 400 Ministers stood up on Sunday morning and announce their “selective patronage” campaign. Their first target was Tastycake.

Yes, that Tastycake. The ministers announced that they would not be buying Tastycake products until the company hired black workers in all sectors of its operations. So, at the start of the summer, as school was getting out, thousands of black church folk stopped buying where they couldn’t work. Black-owned corner stores refused to carry Tastycake products. Tastycake protested and promised halfway measures. The black community persisted. On August 7, Tastycake folded.

Sullivan later said that after that victory, “black people were walking ten feet tall in the streets of Philadelphia.” The next company they went to, Pepsi, folded before the selective patronage campaign even got started. So did the next company, and the next.

In the end, the targeted “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign created over 2000 jobs for low-income black folks in Philadelphia. But more than that, it proved that black communities could leverage their power to bring change. They didn’t need to rely solely on lawyers or benevolent white-run organizations.

In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus encourages his followers to use what power they have to force their oppressors to see them as people. If a Roman soldier compels you to carry his pack one mile (the legal maximum under Roman law), carry it a second so he is ashamed or runs the risk of punishment from his boss. If your credit card company sues the coat off your back, strip naked and shame them.

Jesus spoke to a people who did not think they had much power, and suggested creative, nonviolent strategies to assert humanity and dignity in the face of military occupation and economic strangulation. Sullivan and the 400 Ministers took the buying power of their community and leveraged it to change hiring practices across Philly. Their Sunday morning announcements struck fear into the hearts of white factory owners. What then could those of us who are middle-class, or white, or college-educated do today, if we put our collective wealth and power on the line for change? How can our communities be responsible for the power we do have, and use creative nonviolence to help bring forth the kingdom of God as a reality in the everyday lives of Philadelphians.


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