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New president of Greensburg-Jeannette branch of NAACP seeks to keep King's dream alive

| Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, 12:02 a.m.
The Rev. Dr. Jack Sullivan Jr., the new president of the NAACP Greensburg-Jeannette branch, discusses his plans at his office in Hempfield Township on Jan. 16, 2013. Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review

The Rev. Jack Sullivan Jr. vividly remembers watching the anger and sadness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination envelop his hometown of Cleveland in riots when he was 8 years old.

People were asking who would replace King as a champion for racial equality and an opponent to injustice.

“There I was at age 8 saying, ‘Well, I will,' ” Sullivan said.

So whether it is working with children in poverty in Washington, helping found the NAACP chapter at his alma mater, Ohio University, or through his work as a minister, Sullivan has worked at every turn to fight for what King stood for.

Now he will do that work in Westmoreland County as the new president of the Greensburg-Jeannette branch of the NAACP. He takes over for Ruth Tolbert, who decided to step down from the presidency after 12 years.

Sullivan, 53, moved to the area in October 2011 after his election as the regional minister and president of the Pennsylvania region for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada.

His office is based at the First Christian Church in Hempfield, and he and his family live in South Greensburg.

Sullivan said he was a little surprised when he was asked to run for president after joining the branch so recently, but he was glad to take on his first leadership role in the NAACP.

“I want to help the branch grow in its membership, its diverse membership, and also in its involvement with the community with respect to being ... a presence for wholeness and justice and freedom,” Sullivan said.

In particular, he would like to see more young people join the NAACP. The branch has 70 members.

Sullivan said being new to the community, he hasn't yet had much experience in race relations. It's something he hopes to get a better handle on.

“I've experienced a great deal of goodwill in this community,” Sullivan said. “I do wonder about long-term residents of color and their experiences.”

If he discovers injustices in the community, he won't be afraid to speak his mind. He has marched on Washington more times than he can count.

“You do it without apologies because you believe in the worth and dignity of every human being,” he said. “When we work for freedom and justice, then I think we are models and examples of the best of what it is to be American. It should be everybody's responsibility to look out for each other.”

Tolbert, who remains with the NAACP as branch secretary, said she decided it was time for a change.

“I believe change is good, and with a great leader in place I think things will move on and we won't lose a beat,” she said. “He is very well-suited to the position, and I'm expecting great things from everybody.”

Such great things can be as simple as an act of kindness toward another human being, Sullivan said.

He recalled a recent business trip to Harrisburg where, after ordering a meal at a fast-food restaurant, he realized the establishment didn't take his corporate credit card. As he left to get a meal elsewhere, a white man stopped him in the parking lot and asked if he was hungry and needed to eat.

Moments like that make Sullivan realize that making a difference is sometimes as simple as showing human decency.

“We need more people to commit themselves to doing that kind of work across the racial spectrum,” he said.

Jennifer Reeger is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6155 or jreeger@tribweb.com.

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