Fifty years ago, the civil rights movement was well underway and minority youth were expressing their anger—sometimes violently—over the lack of employment opportunity. A man named Leon H. Sullivan, pastor of Zion Baptist Church, sought to douse the flames of anger and despair with a message of hope and opportunity. The Reverend Sullivan decided someone needed to act, and began soliciting local companies to provide jobs for the jobless. When rebuffed, he mobilized an army of nearly 400 clergy from across the region who, every Sunday, encouraged their congregations to boycott any and all companies refusing to do their part in providing fair opportunities to minority youth.
This strategy, which he coined “selective patronage,” quickly made a very real impact on local company profits, and eventually helped pry open the doors of opportunity to more and more Philadelphians. However, this expanded access did not necessarily mean success, as people needed training to take full advantage of it. And not just training, but also education and counseling coupled with attitude, self-esteem development and motivation.
The Reverend Sullivan was guided by the belief that it was not enough to fight for the right of everyone to sit at the same restaurant counter, or even to work at the same restaurant, but that everyone should be able to realistically aspire to own the restaurant.
With this idea in mind, the first OIC, or Opportunities Industrialization Center, was opened at 19th & Oxford Streets in North Central Philadelphia, in a building donated by the city, with support from corporations and donations of equipment and furniture. Using what was known as the “10-36” plan–where people were asked to contribute $10 per month for 36 months, the Reverend Sullivan was able to support the development of major economic development projects like Progress Plaza (click to view a short video of Rev. Sullivan launching Progress Plaza and explaining its importance).
From these beginnings, the OIC movement began and results were seen right away. Within a few years, the success of the organization had gained such notoriety that President Lyndon B. Johnson visited, bringing federal support for the budding organization with him.
Based on this success, OIC soon started creating satellite offices across the city and, in short order, affiliate organizations across the country. In March of 1970, OIC of America was created as a parent organization to help nurture the growth of the OIC model in other cities.
OIC evolved into a national and international education and training model of demonstrated effectiveness, boasting of having served over three million people worldwide and 100,000 in Philadelphia since its inception. Under the philosophical banner of “Helping People Help Themselves”, OIC has been moving people from welfare to work, from tax dependent to taxpayer and from homelessness to homeownership for 50 years. The legacy of Reverend Leon H. Sullivan and the concept of OIC is alive and well in Philadelphia and throughout world communities.
It’s up to us to ensure what he created, and his struggle to expand opportunities for all, continues. And that this uniquely Philadelphia story is preserved and retold for generations to come.