Prophet of possibility Pt. I
Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman and the roots of black power in Detroit
By Paul Lee
Special to the Michigan Citizen
Pt. I of III: Programming for power
This month, the Shrines of the Black Madonna of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church (PAOCC) are celebrating the 97th birthday of the church’s founder, Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman, who was born Albert B. Cleage, Jr., at Indianapolis, Ind., on June 13, 1911.
He made his transition at the church’s Beulah Land Christian Center farm near Calhoun Falls, S. C., on Feb. 20, 2000.
The church that evolved into the Black Christian Nationalist (BCN) Shrines of the Black Madonna was founded in Detroit in 1953 and Jaramogi Agyeman was probably the most important figure in the movement that led to black Detroiters achieving some measure of political and economic power in the early 1970s
Therefore, The Michigan Citizen is joining with the PAOCC in commemorating his birth with a special three-part series by Highland Park-based scholar Paul Lee, our historical features writer.
It could be considered an epilogue to “UPRISING! Rare testimonies and reports on the ’67 Detroit Rebellion,” the eight-part series edited by Lee in the Citizen from July-October of last year, which memorialized the sociological explosion (as Malcolm X described such upheavals) that forever changed the economic, political and social landscape of the Motor City and its suburbs.
Before the July 23-27, 1967, Rebellion against police brutality, economic exploitation, political marginalization, inadequate housing and other social inequalities and injustices, Jaramogi Agyeman was one of the most effective spokespersons for Black Power, locally, nationally and internationally.
In the wake of the Rebellion, he briefly became “the visible, titular head of the 660,000 Detroit black community,” as his biographer Hiley H. Ward described him, before the broad social movement that he led was undermined by factionalism.
Jaramogi Agyeman later decided that his best course was to turn inward to build his church into a powerful vehicle that would lead to what he defined as the most sacred goal: black liberation.
Pt. I of this series recounts his grassroots political efforts. Pt. II treats his role in the pioneering and innovative attempts to build black economic power in the aftermath of the Rebellion. The series concludes with the transcript of a long-lost 1968 interview with Jaramogi Agyeman in which he compellingly articulates his vision for empowering black people. — PL.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1967 Detroit Rebellion, as it was called by many black residents, a diverse group of black leaders, individuals and groups banded together to form the Citywide Citizens Action Committee (CCAC), “possibly the most broadly based Black Power organization in any city,” according to a January 1968 article by Donald Lief in City magazine.
Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman (the Rev. Albert B. Cleage, Jr.), the city’s boldest and most articulate advocate of Black Power or self-determination, was elected chairman of CCAC (pronounced “SEE-sack”) and most of its committee chairs or co-chairs were members of or closely associated with his Central United Church of Christ, located at 7625 Linwood at Hogarth on Detroit’s near Westside.
Edward Vaughn, a Central Church member, later became CCAC’s executive director and Clyde Cleveland, head of the Detroit chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and a future Detroit City Council member, was its treasurer.
Vaughn was also the proprietor of the famous Vaughn’s Bookstore at 12123 Dexter Ave., which specialized in literature and art by and about black peoples, and the head of Forum 66, which mounted two major black arts conventions at Central Church, as Jaramogi Agyeman called it.
The militant option
On Easter Sunday, 1967, four months before the Rebellion, Jaramogi Agyeman, who was also the chair of the militant, church-based Inner City Organizing Committee (ICOC), unveiled a striking 18-foot chancel mural of a Black Madonna and child and proclaimed the Black Christian Nationalist Movement, later church (BCN), which sought to restore the African roots of Christianity and make the black church the center of struggle for a “black nation within a nation.”
Central Church was formally renamed the Shrine of the Black Madonna in 1970 and the BCN denomination became the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church in 1978.
White local and state powerbrokers and captains of industry, including Henry Ford II, head of the powerful Ford Motor Co., quickly concluded that the traditional black civil-rights leaders had little, if any, influence on the course of events in Detroit’s explosive black community.
Therefore, they turned to black nationalists and militants such as Jaramogi Agyeman, who were seen as voicing the concerns and hopes of the mostly neglected black masses. At the same time, the federal government took an interest in such grassroots leaders.
Kerner Commission investigation
On July 27, 1967, President Lyndon Baines Johnson created an 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (NACCD) to uncover the causes and make recommendations to prevent or contain urban uprisings, which numbered 164 in the first nine months of that year.
The Kerner Commission, as it was called after its chair, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, Jr., dispatched field investigators (most of them black) and consultants to the affected cities, including Detroit.
They recorded interviews with a broad cross-section of local leaders, including attorneys, clergy, educators, economists, judges, police officers and officials, politicians, social workers and “black militants.” They also prepared reports and studies on individuals, groups and institutions thought to be relevant to the causes, prevention or containment of urban disorders.
Although the audio recordings of these interviews seem to have been lost, summaries survived, along with the original reports (but rarely their attachments) and studies, which are available in the commission’s records at the LBJ Library and Museum at Austin, Tex.
We have published below the nearly complete text of a report of a CCAC meeting held on Oct. 12, 1967, six weeks after the Rebellion.
It bore the awkward title, “Report on attendance of the Citizens City-wide Action Committee, by certain team members on Thursday, October 12, 1967.”
It was written by Herman (Tex) Wilson, the commission’s Detroit Team Leader. A graduate of Lincoln University and Harvard Law School, Wilson was the regional legal services director of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) before being assigned to the commission.
Like most of the commission’s Detroit interviews and reports, Wilson’s account, which he submitted to Charles E. Nelson, director of field operations, was generally reliable, although he inverted the first two words in CCAC’s name and phonetically rendered Jaramogi Agyeman’s former name as “Claygue.” Only one of the attachments referred to in the report was found in the commission’s records (see CCAC flier).
To ease the reading of a document that was never intended for publication, we have silently accepted the report’s handwritten corrections of misspellings and punctuation, made our own, and enclosed clarifying insertions in [brackets].
Memo on CCAC meeting
“The Citizens City-wide Action Committee, popularly known as CCAC, is a broadly-based black organization in the city of Detroit, which at present is the principle political arm of the Black Christian Nationalist Movement. The chairman of CCAC is the Reverend Albert Cleage, minister of the Central United Church of Christ. The principle officers and committee chairmen of CCAC are members of Reverend Cleage’s church.
“This organization was formed after the July disorder and has been holding meetings on a bi-weekly basis in various sections of the city of Detroit in order to rally support. The meeting attended by four members of the Detroit team on October 12, was the fifth in a series of meetings around the city of Detroit.
“The meeting was convened at approximately 8:30 on Thursday evening at the Southwest Baptist Church. There were between 250 and 300 members and guests in attendance. Reverend Cleage, the chairman of CCAC, presided and gave the principle address. In his speech he outlined the basic philosophy of CCAC—unity of the black community and black control of that community as a result of the transfer of power from the white power structure.
“An appeal was made to all persons present to join the Citizens City-wide Action Committee and to take an active part in one of the more than 12 committees which have been set up to focus on particular problems that are facing the emerging black nation. These committees will deal with housing, labor, employment, finances, redevelopment, communications, etc….
“The theme constantly reiterated by Reverend Cleage and other speakers was black identity, black black unity and preparedness of [for] the transfer of power to the black community from the white power structure. While there was no talk of violence by any of the speakers, it was evident that violence was not considered to be an unaccepted means of attempting to solve the problems of the black community.
“Many of the militants in the audience wore 50mm machine gun bullets attached to leather thongs around their necks as pendants. We were told by one of the black nationalists that these are the new ‘devil-chasers.’ …
“CCAC claims as its membership the entire black community, whether the individual black man [sic] has actively joined the organization or not. The organization is not open to whites and whites are not allowed to attend meetings of the organization.
“It should be noted, however, that the organization is not made up completely of black militants, although black militants hold most of the positions of leadership. The President of the local chapter of the NAACP [Rev. James E. Wadsworth, Jr.] is a member and a committee chairman of CCAC, and there are representatives of other moderate, middle-of-the-road black organizations in the membership and as committee chairmen in CCAC.”
During the two years of its existence, CCAC registered a number of accomplishments — politically, economically and culturally.
It held a “People’s Tribunal,” or mock trial, at Central Church on Aug. 30, 1967, to hear the case against three white Detroit police officers and a black security guard charged in what witnesses called the “execution” of three young black men—Carl Cooper, Aubrey Pollard and Fred Temple—at the Manor House annex of the Algiers Motel on Virginia Park off Woodward Avenue on July 26, 1967, the fourth day of the Rebellion.
The victims were killed after being found in the company of two young white women.
“Watch accurate justice administered by citizens of the community,” a CCAC flier announced. “Witness the unbiased, legal action of skilled black attorneys. Review and watch the evidence for yourself.”
Milton R. Henry, noted Pontiac civil-rights attorney, Central Church member and future co-founder of the Republic of New Africa (RNA), served as one of the two prosecutors; Solomon A. Plapkin, a white attorney, and Central Church member Russell L. Brown, Jr., acted as defense counsel; and Kenneth V. Cockrel, Sr., a recent Wayne State University graduate, future co-founder of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW) and Detroit City Council member and the father of the current city council president, was the judge and moderator.
The stenographer was new Central Church member Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, later known as Nataki, who is the current chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and mother of Detroit Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick.
Among the jurors were African American novelist John O. Killens and Rosa Parks, the “mother” of the modern civil-rights movement.
Despite threats against the church, witnesses and organizers Danny Aldridge and Lonnie Peek, both CCAC members, a thousand persons filled the sanctuary, including the balcony, and 400 heard the proceedings through loudspeakers in the adjoining Fellowship Hall.
“There is no way to put down on paper,” Jaramogi Agyeman later wrote, “the sheer horror of the recital of events by witness after witness. It is hard to believe that such bestiality could exist in the world, that a group of ordinary white men could so hate ordinary black men. …”
Nevertheless, an informer for the Michigan State Police’s infamous antiradical “Red Squad,” formally known as the Security Unit, sought to catch the air of the tense proceedings.
“There were sporadic outbursts from key sections of the hall during the testimony relating to key points, such as AUBREY POLLARD begging for his life,” the informer reported to his control officer, “at which time there were shouts, ‘SHOW THEM NO MERCY,’ otherwise all went along smoothly as programmed.”
Although all four defendants were later acquitted by mostly white juries, the People’s Tribunal found them guilty in absentia of “coldly assassinating” Cooper, Pollard and Temple.
Afterward, Jaramogi Agyeman took up a collection for the release of Michael Lewis, who was charged for “inciting” the Rebellion, and announced, according to the informer’s report, plans for “a housing project and super market.”
Copyright © 2008 by Paul Lee
(Next week: “The economics of power”)