Timothy Rainey is assistant professor of religion at St. Olaf College. His research focuses on religion, race, and economy in the Black Atlantic world, with special attention given to the ways corporations interacted with Black faith communities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Rainey holds a Ph.D. in religion from Emory University.
More than 50 years ago, Rev. Leon Howard Sullivan—pastor, activist, and corporate board member—argued that the Progress Movement in Philadelphia would lead to the salvation of the Black race. Publishing Build Brother Build in 1969, Sullivan riffed on the contentious rallying cry of the 1965 Watts Riots, “burn baby burn.” The title points to the persistence of Black business traditions, from informal economies during the era of slavery in America to mutual aid societies, Black banking, and entrepreneurialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Sullivan’s book ultimately performs the creative and peculiar work of combining theological ethics with economic liberalism.
Sullivan’s Progress Movement emerged on the eve of the Black Power movement. In addition to serving as a pastor, Sullivan was an economic activist who innovated a series of efforts during the 1960s to liberate African American communities by employing a theory of progress that was both conservative and radical. He recognized the pragmatic function of promoting industrial education and, in 1964, built the first Opportunities Industrial Center (OIC), which offered professional development programs and job training for minorities. The OIC exists to this day. Sullivan challenged segregationist politics and job discrimination in his more radical register by innovating selective patronage campaigns in 1960. The concept was eventually adopted by Martin Luther King Jr., who duplicated the program in the South two years later.
Sullivan was an economic activist who innovated a series of efforts during the 1960s to liberate African American communities by employing a theory of progress that was both conservative and radical.
A particular expression of Black Power consciousness emerged in Sullivan’s economic ideology. He recognized the importance of concentrating and strategically disseminating Black wealth through collectives such as the Zion Investment Associates (ZIA), a church-based investment group established in 1962. The success of ZIA eventuated the 1968 founding of Progress Plaza, the nation’s first African American-owned shopping center. Excitement around the Progress Movement in North Philadelphia prompted tours of the plaza by celebrities and politicians. They included figures such as Jackie Robinson, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Governor George Romney, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and presidential candidate Richard Nixon, who told Sullivan he was encouraged by “what he called Black Capitalism.”
Sullivan’s innovative ideology won him admiration domestically and internationally, but the apprehensions of his critics were within earshot. By the end of his career, the pastor-activist was increasingly criticized for his ties to corporations, philosophy of corporate integrationism, and imperiled promotion of Black capitalism. Could Sullivan be both radical and liberal? Historian Manning Marable argues in How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America (1983) that true freedom cannot be achieved for Black people within the political economy of capitalism. Leon Sullivan seemed committed to the radical call for Black ownership in America, but his hope that the American capitalist complex—which grew up with slavery, as scholars writing in the tradition of W.E.B. Du Bois note—could somehow initiate its disinherited was too forgetful of transatlantic histories. Yet, unlike the calling embedded in neoliberal religion to tell the good news about globalization, corporate gifts, and blithe promises to reform the free market, Sullivan’s Progress Movement was uniquely centered on making Black economic liberation a matter of public policy. In addition to probing Sullivan’s ties to liberalism, scholars must be more attentive to the radical features that shape his ideology around “building.” Such scrutiny might emerge by determining where someone like Sullivan stands in relation to the Black radical tradition—that is, if he has a place at all?
By the end of his career, the pastor-activist was increasingly criticized for his ties to corporations, philosophy of corporate integrationism, and imperiled promotion of Black capitalism. Could Sullivan be both radical and liberal?
Terrence Johnson’s new book, We Testify with Our Lives (2021), shows how African American religion informed Black radical thought through its hermeneutics of dissent. For example, biblical interpretations conducted by enslaved people inserted the Black subject into Christianity in ways that defied the racial caste system in Protestant America. Johnson offers close and exacting readings of thinkers such as Audre Lorde and Toni Cade Bambara, showing how such figures became twentieth-century inheritors of Black revisionist agendas born out of religious thought. While not explicitly religiously focused, even Lorde reflected “epistemic transgressions in her guiding principles” that echoed “the religious radicalism and the ethical commitments emerging from Black religion subsequently informing the contours of Black politics,” Johnson writes.
While attending to Lorde’s choice to embrace erotic love and interdependence over what she saw as the “master’s tools” drenched in liberal individualism, Johnson also takes seriously the work of Lewis and Jane Gordon. They think more constructively about the tools at hand and argue that Afro-descended people in the Americas found ways to employ the languages of dominant society in unconventional and innovative manners. Black Americans have done more than attempt to tear down the master’s house—they built new ones. When viewed in light of what business historian Juliet E.K. Walker in The History of Black Business in America (2009) calls creative capitalism, the Lewises’ re-evaluation of the master’s tools opens a new interpretive door with historical precedent.
Sullivan’s creation of religious economics builds on an African American business tradition characterized by self-help, cooperation, and a transcendent hope that the accumulation of capital might lead to freedom. By 1969, the end of a transformative decade in America, Sullivan had witnessed riots, war, marches that turned violent, assassinations, and the rise of Black radicals. One could read Build Brother Build, then, as more than a rhetorical veneer draped over Black conservatism, but as a genuine attempt to revise, re-appropriate, and pivot the energy behind African American politics in the 1960s toward a concrete economic agenda. On these terms, Sullivan’s Progress Movement and economic theology might be read, at the very least, as a close interlocutor of Black radical politics.
The lesson we might learn from Sullivan is that the Black radical tradition operates on a broad discursive landscape where particular political, economic, and theological expressions surface and require interpretive dexterity.
Exploration of the radical dimension of figures like Sullivan operates within the interstices of modern economic discourse obsessed with the polarized debate between Marxian and neoclassical ideologies. But it is possible to think beyond this dichotomy. The sense that there is no spiritual or soulful substance in economic practices—reflecting the materialist turn in Marx—is an interpretation that often precludes religious reflections on “work.” Still, historical figures often pegged as conservative are more complex. Booker T. Washington, at times, styled economic activism in accommodationist language in ways that belied subtle subversion. In Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South (2012), Andrew Zimmerman writes that cotton-growing in Africa, just as Martin Delany had argued on the eve of the Civil War, was imagined as a potential strategy toward subverting the economic power of the slave South. Of course, this is complicated. Zimmerman shows that such radical economics must not be considered without acknowledging how colonial agents of the German government appropriated the Tuskegee model to exploit women and men in Togo.
On the other hand, the subtle attachments to liberal strategies permeating the practices of seeming radicals should not be overlooked. Poet, activist, and Hip Hop icon Killer Mike called for a “bank Black” movement in 2016, and later co-founded the Greenwood Bank with Andrew Bo Young II, raising $40 million by 2021, but only through commitments from massive financial institutions like Wells Fargo, PNC, Visa, Mastercard, and J.P. Morgan Chase. Again, it’s complicated. The lesson we might learn from Sullivan is that the Black radical tradition operates on a broad discursive landscape where particular political, economic, and theological expressions surface and require interpretive dexterity. As liberation movements and struggles against anti-Blackness, sexism, and gender bias demand expansive and more creative tactics, the critical tools publics employ in analyzing what we mean by radical must be just as creative and open.