As a student at Spelman College in 1960, Herschelle Sullivan participated in the October 1960 sit-in at Rich’s, a department store in Atlanta, and was subsequently arrested with Martin Luther King. In a handwritten letter penned while King was in Fulton County Jail, he praised the female protesters, including Sullivan, arrested with him for their “intrepid courage, [their] quiet dignity, and [their] undaunted faith in the power of nonviolence.” King continued, “It is inspiring enough to see the fellows willingly accepting jail rather than bail, but when young ladies are willing to accept this type of self suffering for the cause of freedom it is both majestic and sublime” (Papers 5:528).
Sullivan was born on 5 October 1938 in Atlanta, Georgia. She received a BA from Spelman College, an MA from Johns Hopkins University, and a PhD from Columbia University. Sullivan came to know King as an active participant in the Atlanta student movement and as student body president of Spelman. As an alumnus of Boston University, King wrote a letter of recommendation on Sullivan’s behalf for the university’s school of international relations. He wrote of Sullivan’s “deep commitment to noble principles,” and wholeheartedly recommended her admission to the university (King, 15 May 1961). Prior to pursuing graduate studies, Sullivan attended summer school at the University of Kentucky, where she participated in Lexington’s Congress of Racial Equality chapter. Sullivan, who was passionate about social action, was disheartened by the complacency of African Americans in Kentucky and the overall “lack of unity, organization, and clear reasoned strategy” (Sullivan, 28 July 1961). In a letter to King on 28 July 1961, she wrote: “Many of them don’t consider themselves Southerners and have assumed what I like to call a ‘cool Northern Negro sense of detachment’ from the civil rights struggle.”
Instead of attending Boston University, Sullivan accepted admission to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Baltimore based on the college’s location. Sullivan continued to write King, keeping him abreast of her graduate studies. While King was jailed during the Albany Movement in December 1961, Sullivan joked that the conditions of the Albany jail “cannot possibly equal the luxury of the ‘Fulton Bars’” (Sullivan, 16 December 1961). Although Sullivan was overjoyed with King’s work in the movement, she felt increasingly isolated from the struggle that she had been so much a part of in 1960. In a 9 March 1962 letter King consoled Sullivan, maintaining that she would have to “adjust to the experience of not being a participant at a particular moment.” Although she was no longer actively involved, he felt her “experience at Johns Hopkins will broaden your insights and extend your intellectual horizon. When this is coupled with the great experience that you had in the struggle for freedom and human dignity, you will have a completeness and a maturity that so many students are missing today” (King, 9 March 1962).
After obtaining her PhD from Columbia, Sullivan (later Challenor) held a number of academic positions, including Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department of Brooklyn College (1969 to 1972), congressional fellow for the American Political Science Association (1972 to 1973), and program officer for the Diversity Education and Research Ford Foundation (1973 to 1975). In 1978 she became the director of the United Nations Educational Science and Cultural Organization Washington Liaison Office, a position she held until 1993. That same year, she became dean of Clark Atlanta University’s School of Public and International Affairs.
Challenor has received numerous honors recognizing her work as an educator and activist, including a nomination by President Bill Clinton to the National Security Education Board in August 1994.