The Reverend Albert Cleage Jr. represented the more militant side of the pulpit in pre-riot Detroit. A highly skilled orator, Cleage was renowned for his blunt, separatist’s views and the desire to create what he coined a “Black Nation.” He was the ideological spokesman for Detroit’s black militancy and, despite the backlash against him, he was a voice that would not be silenced. As a result he became a very polarized figure. Whites viewed Cleage’s Sunday shock sermons as laced with racial invective, having the effect of further fracturing an already divided city. His black congregation pumped their fist with approval for a leader who aggressively took on the great white power structure they had long believed was the root of the problem in Detroit and for their perpetual, if not pre-fabricated, black plight.
Cleage grew up in Detroit, completing an undergraduate degree from Wayne State University and his theology degree from Oberlin College. He openly espoused a transfer of power from white to black in Detroit, a point of contention which rankled many of the city’s white business and civic leaders as well as right wing blacks who were followers of Dr. King’s non-violence philosophy and were desperately attempting to mend racial fences after the riots and thus keep Cleage at arm’s length, a feat they were never able to do. Cleage's combative tirades were a unique strain of militant rhetoric, historical perspective and biblical prophecy. His points were fact based and, like Malcolm X, difficult to argue against.
However, Cleage failed to realize that if he was successful in transferring “ownership” of the city from white to black, that when the whites left they would take their considerable resources with them, leaving behind an economic scorched earth for the black community to deal with.
"Something has happened to black people in these United States. We are not as we were a few years ago, a few months ago, a few weeks ago. Something has happened to us: not to America but to us, to the way we think, the way we fight, the way we work together. This is the most important thing that has ever happened in America.
What is that something? It is that fear is gone. Just a few weeks ago we were so different. Down South we were afraid; up North we were afraid. The fear was a very elementary fear. It was not the fear of being brutalized, of be humiliated. Essentially, it was the fear of dying. When the white man in the South said, “Get of the sidewalk,” why did we get off? Because we were afraid of dying. We are not afraid any more. So the white man has stopped saying it. Now he is afraid. Now he must redefine his relationship with us.
Why is fear gone? Fear is gone essentially because we are in the process of becoming a Black Nation, a nation that is real as if it had a capital, a Congress and a president. We was a people are now dedicated to one purpose, freedom for black people. It is this which makes the difference. We didn’t understand what this was before because each of us functioned as an individual. We were afraid to fight because we felt that if we fought we would fight alone and we would die alone. It is hard to stand up and be a man when you are all by yourself. That is the way we were. The difference now is that we are coming together. We are no longer just individuals. We are becoming a Nation. If you fight back against oppression, we are not going to turn our backs and run away. When you know that, you feel different no matter how much Uncle Tom still remains in you. Now you are part of a nation so the fear is gone.
We are a Black Nation in a white man’s world. Increasingly the white man’s world has become an enemy world, an enemy world from which we have been systematically excluded and which we now despise and reject. They can’t exclude us anymore because we don’t want to be in their world. Now we are in our world, our own Nation, so much so that sometimes we feel uncomfortable because we have to go out into their enemy world to work and to shop.
We have become a Black Nation. You can see it everywhere. The white press doesn’t know what to make of it. White journalists are the most confused people in the world. Sometimes when you read the things they write you think you are reading a fairy tale. Hans Christian Anderson is much closer to reality than they are because they don’t have any key to understand what’s happening. This is because in their minds we are inferior. We can’t hate like they hate. We can’t believe like they believe. We can’t fight like they fight. So they have to make up some kind of story to explain why we do the things we do. Yet the answer is so simple. All they have to accept is the simple fact black people are black but in every other way there is no difference. If they could just accept this simple fact, they would realize why we cannot accept any more than they could the brutalization, the degradation, the indignities, and the criminalities to which we have been subjected. But they can’t see that, and so they can’t understand our Black Revolution."
- Reverend Albert Cleage Jr.
Reverend Cleage at his church, the Shrine of the Black Madonna off Linwood in the heart of the Detroit's riot area. His fiery Sunday sermons resonated down the avenue, probing many of the very souls that would later witness/participate/provoke the Great Rebellion of 1967.
"America is headed for increased racial conflict and violence. There is no escape because the white man is determined to preserve injustice and we are determined that justice is ours by right and that we shall have it. We have decided that we are willing to die rather than continue to suffer the injustice that we have suffered for four hundred years."
"What do we mean when we speak of a Black Revolution? I can remember an incident at the beginning of the Harlem Rebellion only a few short years ago when a news reporter snapped an unforgettable picture of a black girl who was present when a black boy was brutally killed by a white apartment house caretaker. She stood there on the sidewalk, her face contorted with anger and frustration, tears streaming down her cheeks, and she screamed at the cops who had rushed to the scene to keep their kind of law and order,
“Kill me too! Kill me too!”
This was the absolute in frustration. “The problem of being black in a white man’s world is just too big. I don’t know what to do with it. So just kill me too and get it over with.” That was what she was saying.
Black brothers and sister all over the country felt a spontaneous identification with that girl because every black person has felt just this kind of frustration. We feel every day. At every meeting some young black man jumps to his feet screaming, “I can’t stand it any longer. Let’s take to the streets and get it over with!” We all know how he feels and why he feels that way. Each of us has felt that same sense of powerlessness that makes us ache with helplessness and hopelessness and drives us to seek death as an easy way out. Those of us who cry out think of ourselves as revolutionists and participants in the Black Revolution. But a revolution seeks to change conditions. So each day we must decide. Either we are trying to achieve the power to change conditions or we have turned from the struggle and are seeking a heroic moment when we can die in the streets.
As black people, we have entered a revolution rather than the evolution of gradual change which white folks like us to accept. We want to move fast enough to be able to see that we are moving. And four hundred years of standing still is a long time. We are trying to make the world over so that our children can have the power to live like human beings. We look at the world in which we live today and we are determined to turn the world upside down.
But when I hear cries of “Kill me too!” I know that that individual no longer has any hope. When he screams, “Let’s get together and die in the streets,” I know that in his desperate hopelessness this individual has put aside the revolution. Dying in the streets is not revolution. This is escapism. This is suicide. But it is not revolution. As long as there is the slightest possibility of victory, we are still engaged in a revolution. But when an individual sees no way to achieve power to change conditions, then the revolution is over. It doesn't make any difference how he spends his remaining time, singing hymns, getting drunk or buying guns. For him the revolution is over."
A Black Nation
Rev. Albert Cleage Jr.
Above, left: 18-month old Albert Cleage was not the only trailblazer in the family. Albert Cleage Sr. was the first doctor employed by the city of Detroit. Dr. Cleage, with great fortitude, had to break through many color barriers when treating white patients but his iron determination, a trait he would pass on to his son, slowly won the day.
Above, right: Albert Cleage Jr. in his element, at the pulpit, "giving them the business."