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Cleage, Albert B., Jr.

Albert B. Cleage, Jr.

1911-2000

Religious leader

Reverend Albert B. Cleage, Jr., who took the name Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman in the 1970s, spent five decades as a champion of black theology, during which time he built thriving congregations and played a significant role in strengthening African-American political activism. He emerged as a leader during the devastating riots of 1967 in Detroit, Michigan, and a 1968 Detroit Free Press poll confirmed him to be one of the most well-known and influential leaders in his community. Establishing member churches of his Pan African Orthodox Christian Church in cities across the United States helped win Agyeman respect on a national level in the decades to come. The congregations he founded were part of his Black Christian Nationalist Movement, which he launched in 1967. With its community service programs, the movement—as well as Cleage's Shrine of the Black Madonna—sought to provide a framework for the economic self-sufficiency of its members. Agyeman's energetic leadership style and development of a well-organized political action group called the Black Slate Inc furthered the careers of several African-American politicians, most notably the first African-American mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young. Esteemed for his spiritual leadership, he also "changed the face of political organizing," according to Kilpatrick writing in the Michigan Chronicle at the time of Cleage's death.

Inspired by Father

Agyeman was born Albert Buford Cleage, Jr., in Indianapolis, Indiana, on June 13, 1911, the first of seven children born to Albert, Sr., a physician, and Pearl Reed Cleage. The family relocated to Kalamazoo, Michigan, a few years later, and then to Detroit. Cleage's father became the first African-American doctor on the city payroll in 1930, a post he held for 16 years while at the same time operating his own practice. Dr. Cleage also helped found Detroit's first African-American hospital, and he worked tirelessly with a number of civic and church groups in his community. Inspired by his father's drive, Albert, Jr., studied sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit and was employed as a social caseworker for the Detroit Department of Public Health. He graduated in 1937 and earned a divinity degree from Oberlin College Graduate School of Theology in 1943.

By then Albert Cleage, Jr., had been ordained in the Congregational faith and was a minister at the Chandler Memorial Congregational Church in Lexington, Kentucky. He later moved to California, where he headed the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, a San Francisco interracial congregation, and attended film school at the University of Southern California. In 1946 Cleage was appointed pastor of St. John's Congregational Church in Springfield, Massachusetts. This was one of the oldest African-American congregations in New England and one that played an active role in the surrounding community.

Cleage became known as an outspoken activist during his tenure at St. John's for his involvement with the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the overseeing of the church's extensive social service pro- grams. In a published history of St. John's that was excerpted in Hiley S. Ward's biography of Cleage titled Prophet of the Black Nation, the minister was recalled as "a courageous fighter for equal opportunities for Negroes in the field of employment, and he did much during his ministry at St. John's to open up new avenues of work for qualified job applicants." The examples set by the community service programs at the esteemed church, such as its youth athletic leagues, provided valuable lessons for Cleage when he arrived back in Detroit to head another church.

Community Service Led to Political Activism

Cleage was named pastor of St. Mark's Community Church, a Presbyterian ministry on Detroit's west side, in 1951. Two years later, he led a portion of its congregation in the formation of a new religious organization called the Central Congregational Church (renamed the Central United Church of Christ (CUCC) in 1965). Cleage's concept of a church as the focal point of the community—especially in the political and educational spheres—was increasingly put into practice. In 1957, politicians tried to rezone a primarily African-American congressional district in an attempt to diminish its influence. Cleage and his congregation were vocal opponents of the gerrymandering. They also opposed the reclassification of certain school zones, a move seen as a step toward a more segregated, and therefore unequal, educational system.

The civil rights movement found an increasing base of support among Cleage's churchgoers. In June of 1963 Cleage, along with civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, co-directed a "Walk to Freedom" through Detroit. By the mid 1960s, both Cleage's church and the surrounding community had changed; in some ways, African Americans in Detroit had benefited from the prosperity provided by the automobile industry and become more affluent, educated, and politically aware. Such gains only exacerbated the always-present hostilities between the black and white communities of the city.

Cleage believed in the power Black spirituality could offer to realize Black liberation and sought ways to make Black churches politically active. He was one of the founders of the Freedom Now Party in Michigan, an all-black political party, in 1964 and ran as the first African-American candidate for Michigan governor that same year. Though he ran for several political offices over the years, he did not win an election himself. Instead, his political power developed through his ability to mobilize others. In 1967 he helped to found such groups as the City Wide Citizens Action Committee and the Federation for Self Determination.

As Cleage took note of the increasing politicization of black communities, he began studying earlier African-American religious movements. The tenets of Malcolm X, then an important leader in the Nation of Islam, held great relevance for Cleage. Malcolm X warned of the pitfalls of the integration that King espoused in the struggle to become fully equal members of American society. He pointed out that such integration was not possible without also giving up a part of one's own heritage.

At a Glance …

Born Albert Buford Cleage, Jr., on June 13, 1911, in Indianapolis, IN; died on February 20, 2000, in Calhoun Falls, SC; renamed Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman, 1970s; son of Albert Buford (a physician) and Pearl (Reed) Cleage; married Doris Graham, 1943 (divorced, 1955); children: Pearl, Kristin. Education: Wayne State University, 1929-31; Fisk University, 1931-32; Wayne State University, BA, sociology, 1937; Oberlin College Graduate School of Theology, BDiv, 1943; University of Southern California Film School, mid-1940s.

Career : Detroit Department of Public Health, Detroit, MI, social caseworker, 1936-38; Union Congregational Church, Painesville, OH, minister, late 1930s; ordained Congregational minister, 1943; Chandler Memorial Congregational Church, Lexington, KY, minister, 1942-43; Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, San Francisco, CA, pastor, 1943-44; St. John's Congregational Church, Springfield, MA, pastor, 1946-51; St. Mark's Community Church, Detroit, pastor, 1951-53; Central Congregational Church, Detroit, MI, pastor, 1953; Michigan Freedom Now Party (political party), co-founder, 1957; Black Christian Nationalist Movement, founder, 1967; Shrine of the Black Madonna, 1967, founder and first Holy Patriarch, 1967-2000; Pan African Orthodox Christian Church denomination, founder, 1970s; Black Slate Inc (political organization), founder, 1970s; Beulah Land (church farm), Calhoun Falls, SC, founder, 1999.

Started Movement with Installation of Black Madonna

In March of 1967, Cleage took a step that was to have far-reaching implications for both his parish and the city: he installed an 18-foot religious painting that depicted a black Madonna and infant Jesus. The work was officially dedicated on Easter Sunday. During the service, Cleage spoke of the need for a separate Christian denomination for the African-American community, one that worshipped a savior who, according to biblical references, may have indeed been of African heritage. "For nearly five hundred years the illusion that Jesus was white dominated the world," the pastor said that day. "The resurrection which we celebrate today is the resurrection of the historic black Christ and the continuation of his mission. The church which we are building and which we call upon you to build wherever you are, is the church which gives our people, black people, faith in their power to free themselves from bondage, to control their own destiny, and to rebuild the Nation."

The Black Christian Nationalist Movement that Cleage established soon attracted legions of followers in Detroit. Cleage's new creed took the tenets of Black separatism—drawn from the teachings of Marcus Garvey, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, and Malcolm X—and joined them with religious inspiration from the Bible to give birth to a new Christian denomination that spoke directly to the African-American community. A few months after the movement's inception, the city of Detroit was ravaged in vicious rioting that lasted four days in the summer of 1967. A mostly white police force, notorious for its racism and aided by a National Guard culled from the state's rural counties, seemed to take advantage of the lawlessness of the situation to brutalize—and fire on—members of the city's African-American community. The devastation left by the mayhem galvanized Detroiters to an even greater degree: whites began moving out en masse to the suburbs, and membership in African-American political and social organizations skyrocketed. Cleage and the Shrine of the Black Madonna, as his congregation was soon christened, became the focal point of a new era for the city.

One of the most important tenets proposed by Cleage, based on his own scholarship and writings, was that Jesus was a black revolutionary. He wrote that the religious leader was descended from a dark-skinned tribe of Israelites and that his teachings preached a radical new order. Such tenets eventually made Jesus a political prisoner and a martyr for his cause, and whites had appropriated his teachings to establish a creed for themselves alone. In Cleage's biography, Ward quoted the minister as saying: "Jesus was the nonwhite leader of a nonwhite people struggling for national liberation against the rule of a white nation…. That white Americans continue to insist upon a white Christ in the face of all historical evidence to the contrary and despite the hundreds of shrines to Black Madonnas all over the world, is the crowning demonstration of their white supremacist conviction that all things good and valuable must be white."

For a 1990 Detroit Free Press article on the history and influence of the Shrine, reporter Dori J. Maynard interviewed local educator Clifford Watson. "It got to your psyche," Watson said of the Black Madonna mural in Cleage's church. "If you thought you were…nothing and you walked into the church and you saw a black woman holding a black baby, the Mother Mary, it got to your psyche. And [when] you saw a picture of a black man being crucified on the cross, that had to hit your psyche. Those kind of impressions stayed with you for a lifetime."

Such declarations, combined with Cleage's outspoken political activism in the city, soon earned him a reputation as one of the foremost leaders of the black nationalist movement in Detroit. His tactics and pronouncements readily earned him the vilification of the white community. To them, Cleage was once quoted as saying, "When we take over, don't worry. We'll treat you like you treated us."

Shrine of the Black Madonna Thrived

In the years after the riots, Shrine membership swelled to the thousands, and the organization was soon able to establish several groundbreaking programs. A communal living center, where members were able to pool their resources and become active participants in the Shrine's social service outreach programs, was one such experiment. Cleage dreamed of economic self-sufficiency for the African-American community, and the Shrine set up a neighborhood supermarket with competitive prices as an example of such economic independence. The Shrine also established a bookstore to promote the works of African-American authors and the Black Nationalist movement.

Cleage's political battles with the Detroit school administration to hire more African-American teachers and initiate a curriculum beneficial to the district's growing majority of African-American students evolved into even more ambitious goals. Cleage developed a political action group called Black Slate Inc in 1973. Shrine members campaigned heavily to elect African-American city council members, city and county judges, and state representatives by distributing their "Black Slate" literature across the city. Their efforts were considered crucial to the 1973 election of the city's first African-American mayor, Coleman Young. They also supported the successful candidacies of such people as Bernard Kilpatrick, who served on the Wayne County Commission and in the Wayne County Executive's Office; and Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, who served in the Michigan and U. S. House of Representatives, and as the Congressional Black Caucus chairperson; and Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Cynthia D. Stephens, who served on the State Bar of Michigan Board of Commissioners.

Barbara-Rose Collins remembered Cleage as an early mentor in her political career. An early member of the Shrine, Collins was working in an office when her discussions about her dissatisfaction with her children's schooling led Shrine leaders to suggest that she herself run for a seat on the school board. From there Collins was elected to a city council seat, and by the mid-1990s, she was representing Michigan's 13th Congressional District in Washington, DC. Collins remembered Cleage's advice during her time as a state representative to Keith Dye of the Michigan Chronicle; she had asked Cleage about the best way to assess a proposed bill. His advice, she said, was to ask herself, "Is it good for Black people? Is it good for poor people?"

Remained Focused on Community

The era of black militancy, for both Detroit and the rest of urban America, waned as the civil rights struggles of the 1960s seemed to be making strides. Gains made by African Americans—for better housing, schools, and employment opportunities—were celebrated by some as a positive step towards integration. More militant adherents, such as the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, had become targets of an FBI campaign to negate their effectiveness. By the 1990s, official membership in Detroit's Shrine of the Black Madonna had declined considerably, though similar shrines had been established in such cities as Houston, Texas, and Atlanta, Georgia. In 1999, the Shrine expanded to Calhoun Falls, South Carolina, with the establishment of a farm called Beulah Land.

Cleage, who had renamed himself Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman in the 1970s, remained active with his church and in the black community. By the 1990s the Detroit Free Press cited Cleage and his church for helping alter the political landscape of the city. "He wasn't just an important figure around Detroit," the Reverend Will Herzfeld told the newspaper. "He was a pretty important national figure during the black power movement and the subsequent rise of black theology and its subsequent connection to black power. He was right out front."

Esteemed for his early efforts, Cleage pressed onward, seeking out ways to help blacks even to his dying day. While visiting his church's newly formed farm, Beulah Land, in Calhoun Falls, in Abbeville County, South Carolina, Cleage died on February 20, 2000, at the age of 88. Cleage had been overseeing the growth on the nearly 3,000-acre farm, which he had envisioned as a vehicle to serve and feed the needy.

Heart disease ended his own ability to help, but Cleage's inspiration continued. At his funeral service in Detroit, attended by nearly 500, people spoke of his leadership, activism, and vision. Former U.S. Representative, Barbara-Rose Collins noted that he "didn't just change live, he transformed lives," as quoted by Darren A. Nichols of the Detroit News. The Second Holy Patriarch of the Shrine of the Black Madonna Menelik Kimathi added: "For what he was able to do, we stand in awe."

The Shrine of the Black Madonna continued his work with such projects as the development a private boarding school for boys at Beulah Land; the provision of cultural, educational, recreational, and social services through community service centers in Atlanta, Houston, and Detroit; and the 2005 establishment of the Dr. Albert B. Cleage, Sr. Memorial Health Center, a non-profit healthcare organization in Detroit in honor of his father. Even the political networks and strategies he started in the 1970s continued to influence politics, especially in Detroit. On his birthday each year, the Shrine of the Black Madonna celebrated its founder; in 2007 the celebration included a showing of two documentary films featuring Cleage ministering at the height of his power: The Black Eye (1968) and Black Christian Nationalism (1972). From all the continuing activity, it seems his work in not yet done.

Selected writings

Books

The Black Messiah, Sheed & Ward, 1968.

Black Christian Nationalism: New Directions for the Black Church, Morrow, 1972.

Sources

Books

Chafets, Ze'ev, Devil's Night: And Other True Tales of Detroit, Vintage Books, 1990.

Melton, J. Gordon, Religious Leaders of America, Gale, 1991, pp. 7-8.

Theoharis, Jeanne, and Komozi Woodard, Freedom North: Black Freedom Struggles Outside the South, Palgrave, 2003, pp. 153-75.

Ward, Hiley S., Prophet of the Black Nation, Pilgrim Press, 1969.

Williams, Juan, and Quinton Dixie, This Far by Faith, William Morrow, 2003.

Periodicals

Chicago Tribune, February 28, 2000, p. 7.

Detroit Free Press, June 3, 1990, p. F1; July 18, 1993, p. J7; February 21, 2000, p. B1; February 27, 2000, p. C2.

Detroit News, February 22, 2000, p. D2.

Michigan Chronicle, February 23, 2000, p. 2; March 1, 2000, p. C7; March 13, 2002, p. A1; July 11-17, 2004, p. A5; June 10-16, 2007, p. A14.

New York Times, February 27, 2000, p. 49.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 28, 2000, p. D5.

On-line

Shrine of the Black Madonna Cultural Center and Bookstore,www.shrinebookstore.com (September 4, 2007).

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