Prophet of possibility Pt. IV
Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman and the roots of black power in Detroit
By Paul Lee
Special to the Michigan Citizen
Pt. IV of IV:
Spotlight on Black Power
This week, we conclude our special four-part series celebrating the 97th birthday of the late Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman, formerly the Rev. Albert B. Cleage, Jr., the founder and First Holy Patriarch of the Shrines of the Black Madonna of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church (PAOCC); the father of Black Christian Nationalism (BCN); and the central figure in the Black Power movement in Detroit in the 1960s.
This installment presents the balance of the transcript of his long-lost interview on “Spotlight,” which was taped at WXYZ-TV’s Broadcast House at Southfield, Mich., on Feb. 29, 1968, and aired on March 10, 1968.
The moderator was WXYZ-TV News Director William C. (Bill) Fyffe and the panelists, who questioned Jaramogi Agyeman, were Channel 7 reporters Jim Herrington, Bob Maher and Barney Morris.
As was noted in Pt. III, the transcript was apparently prepared from an audiotape by New Detroit, Inc., not WXYZ-TV. At any rate, it was not professionally produced.
Therefore, in editing the original transcript for clarity and historical accuracy in this and last week’s installments, the following method was employed:
• Spelling and punctuation errors have been silently corrected, including phonetic renderings, such as “Cleague” for Cleage.
• Passages that were garbled because the transcriber misunderstood them have been silently corrected. For example, in the original transcript, a passage on racial bloc voting appears nonsensical: “I can do the same thing that I did, you know, with the freedom in our party when we went down to a glorious defeat. …”
Based upon my familiarity with Jaramogi Abebe’s life and times, I was able to recover his original statement: “I can do the same thing that I did, you know, with the Freedom Now party when we went down to a glorious defeat. …”
In fact, he was referring to the pioneering, but unsuccessful, effort of his nearly all-black political party in the 1964 Michigan elections.
• Extended ellipsis (…..), apparently used to indicate inaudible or unintelligible words or passages, have been changed to standard ellipsis (…).
• Missing words and editorial guesses have been enclosed in [brackets].
March 10, 1968 (Cont.)
The reality of separation[Morris] Sir, it still seems that your definition of self-determination is separatism, and yet you say it is not. [Cleage] It’s the same separatism that now exists. We are separate. I don’t have to advocate separatism. I’ve been separate all my life. Every neighborhood I’ve ever lived in since I was born was a separate black neighborhood. Every school I’ve ever gone to was 99 percent black. Everything I’ve ever known.
I’ve never went to a church that wasn’t a black church. Everything that I’ve ever known is black. My doctor’s black, my lawyer’s black, everything is black that I know, except white businesses come in my neighborhood. I’ve never gone into white stores because white people ran all the stores. I’m already separate. All my people are separate.
Integration means control[Morris] Okay. The point being, though, that there still are many institutions, churches, stores, what have you, that do have a very successful operation under integration; that there are blacks and whites operating together, living together and working together, worshipping together. [Cleage] Integration usually means white control. Now, we would like to end that. That kind of integration, you know, we don’t like. If it is integration where black people control it. …
If we set it up so you don’t control it, then I’m [not] working for you. If it is a business where we set it up, where you make a logical, you know, reasonable return on your investment, but we share in the operation of the business, we devise policies, that kind of integration the white man doesn’t seem to be willing to accept.[Morris] The way you look at it, where would be a place for the white if you did achieve your goal? You would allow him to cooperate as long as you gave the orders? Is that the idea? [Cleage] It is not even that crude. [Morris] I’m making it basic. [Cleage] I know. But capitalists has [have] money to invest. I wouldn’t say to a banker that had five million dollars that he wanted to do something with, “Don’t bring it into our community.” I would just say, “This is the basis in which you invest in our community.” [Fyffe] Gentlemen, time for a break. We will be back to Mr. Cleage in just a moment. [Commercial break]
Cooperative economics[Fyffe] Our guest on “Spotlight” is the Reverend Albert Cleage. We are discussing Black Power and self-determination. A question now from Bob Maher. [Bob Maher] Sir, I think you recognize that the goal you are trying to achieve is not going to be achieved next week or next year or perhaps in the next two or three or four or five years. It may, but we don’t know. It doesn’t seem as though it will be. What happens between now and then as far as the black and the white is concerned? [Cleage] That’s a complicated question. We are trying to work toward the accomplishment of this as a program. I mean, we approach it programmatically. We are trying to do it in a number of different ways through the federation and through Citywide Citizens Action Committee.
We are trying to build co-ops, for one thing, which is a different approach to the understanding of how the economic system works. We have already established Black Star Co-op, which is a supermarket which black people own and control. Now, we hope within a year to have at least five supermarkets functioning that black people own and control throughout the city.
We are going to open a gas station, which will also be co-operatively owned and controlled by the black community. We purchased a dress factory, a clothing factory, which is going to manufacture clothing for men and women. That’s going to be co-operatively owned and manufactured.
We are trying to educate in the black community people to understand how the economic system functions now so that we begin to be a participant in the economic system, not just consumers in the economic system — so that’s important.
Also, we are engaged in negotiations with white industrialists and capitalists regarding investments in the black community on the basis which I just outlined for you. Now, that’s reasonable and possible and many white business people are interested and are willing to invest on those principles.
Also, we are trying to get the government … to use government funds on the same basis through black corporations. So, if we had time, if this summer doesn’t destroy everything through violence that puts us so far apart in the community and destroy the black community to the extent where we can’t solve the problem rationally, if we can get through this summer and the black community can survive, can maintain its sense of identity and its sense of purpose, I think we can build the kind of thing that has to be done, but the white community reacts to what we are doing as though it were a threat to the white community.
Black Power no threat
We are not threatening the white community. They have less to worry about with Black Power and black nationalists than they ever had. Dr. Martin Luther King [was] saying, “We shall overcome,” and talked about integrating the neighborhoods and the churches and the schools, and every white person thought it was beautiful because I guess it is the language he couched it in, or maybe they didn’t take him seriously, or maybe they flatter us by taking us seriously.
But, at the same time, they have no threat whatsoever from us. We want our own community, we want to control it, and we are not in the least bit concerned about Grosse Pointe, Warren and Dearborn, Bloomfield Hills, Birmingham or any of the suburbs. We don’t want anything they have. We have no antagonism to them. Just stay in their own community and stop trying to exploit us. We ought to be able to live together on that basis.
Building black political power[Maher] Let’s turn from economies to politics, just briefly. You stated a number of times in the past that you feel it is possible and, indeed, probable that a Negro mayor can be elected in 1969, presumably a majority, if not all, of the council. That’s a rather rapid grab of power in terms of what has been for many, many years. How realistic is that? [Cleage] It’s hard to say. I wouldn’t go broke [betting] on it. You know, whether we can do it or not depends on so many things. If we could actually mobilize the total political strength of the black community, [it] would be immediately possible. Whether we could do it or not depends on organizational skills and a lot of things that have to be proven during the next year and a half.
But I think it is a reasonable goal and I think it is reasonably possible and I think white people are making all the mistakes that are necessary to drive us together and give us the kind of political strength that we need.
Every idiot who sends handbills out into the black community about how, you know, “how we are going to mow you people down,” that makes black people realize that they have to come together.
So that every oppression that we suffer brings us together and makes — gives us the cohesiveness that makes possible the kind of political power that we have to have. I think it is a reasonable thing. We may do it. If we don’t do it in the next election, we certainly will do it in the following.
A bloody revolution?[Maher] All right, then. Part of the message that you are delivering here — and I … see if I am right. Your revolution — and you have a revolution in mind; you’re in the middle of one — your revolution is sociological, it’s economical, it’s psychological — you are trying to psych the frightened white man, I think, but your plan is that it is not a bloody revolution at all. You don’t plan that, you couldn’t stand it. [Cleage] I don’t plan a bloody revolution and I would try to avoid a bloody revolution, and the only thing that could cause a bloody revolution would be a frantic white people in the suburbs failing to understand what the situation is and making an idiotic move. [Maher] All you want, then, as I get it — and I am trying to make it real simple — you want a fair chance and a nice fair fight with dollars and balance. [Cleage] That’s right.
Catching up with Cleage[Maher] You know in years past, though, Reverend Cleage, the Negro community has not had a political cohesion. Have you ever been able to get all the Negroes together as a voting bloc? Now, what are you going to do differently to accomplish that in? It would seem as though you got to. [Cleage] Well, I’m not going to have to do, you know, too much differently. The world has caught up with me. The black community has. I can do the same thing that I did, you know, with the Freedom Now party when we went down to a glorious defeat, and it will have a different result this time because black people think differently, our sense of identity is different, the whole black revolution is in another stage.
People throughout Detroit realize that we have to do things that they didn’t realize that we had to do before. They didn’t realize that it was necessary for black people to vote as a black bloc, that it was necessary to buy as a black bloc. They felt that integration was coming, that the white man really meant well and that it was just a matter of time until everything worked out.
But the white man’s actions have led black people today not to believe that things are going to work out, and the more things that the white man does that indicate to more and more black people that the enmity is real, that the white man hates black people, this drives black people into the very cohesiveness that white people are so afraid of.[Fyffe] For Brother Maher, excuse me, just a moment. It is time for a time out, and you can have a question when we come back. We will be back in just a moment. [Commercial break]
Black mayor or Detroit mayor?[Fyffe] Before we took time out and I suppressed you you had a question or a point you wanted to make. It is all yours. … [Jim Herrington] I just wanted to direct to Mr. Irish Maher over there, I think that what Mr. Cleage just said and talked about is not too unlike the Irish political revolution in Boston at the turn of the century. They decided to get together and vote Irish.
Mr. Cleage, in terms of that campaign for 1969, is it possible that you are talking about electing a Negro mayor in Detroit in 1969 as the beginning of a campaign for Albert Cleage for mayor?[Cleage] No, I am not announcing a campaign. I have no aspirations to be mayor. I hope to have some voice in selecting who the black mayor of Detroit is and I am very anxious that he be a black mayor in the sense that we use [it] in the black community. We say he is a black mayor or he is a Negro mayor.
I don’t want a Negro mayor. I want a black mayor who is willing to go all the way with the ideas of self-determination and would try to make an example or model for what a black community could do if it had some kind of political power.[Herrington] Would he be a mayor for Detroit or for black people? [Cleage] No, I don’t think. Would you say that Cavanagh is a mayor for white people? [Herrington] I think he is a mayor for Detroit. [Cleage] All right, I think in the same sense a black mayor could be a mayor for Detroit, but at the same time I think essentially he would realize he is dealing with a community in which black people have been deprived, in which they have been oppressed, in which his basic job at the beginning would be to equalize many of the things that black people have been denied over a long period of time.
Now to say he is a mayor for the whole Detroit would merely mean that Detroit would, under his administration, become perhaps the best city in America because I think you can’t build a good city in America until you build a good city for black people, and if a black mayor was building a good city for black people, I think a lot of white people would be trying to creep right back in.
A changing people[Herrington] You know, it just occurred to me that a year or two years ago, if we had done this program, we would have said a Negro mayor, Negro this, Negro that. We have been educated on the streets of Detroit. I am talking about we reporters. Most people haven’t been. That’s part of your preaching that “black is beautiful,” that part of the nationalistic move[ment is?] a sense that’s spreading very, very rapidly. Is it? [Cleage] It is. It is perhaps most noticeable on college campuses or on the streets, where you get young boys, young girls. It is almost universal there, so it shows that it is just a matter of time until the total attitude or philosophy. … [Herrington] Does your Negro older middle class buy that? [Cleage] For the most part they are in a process of change because they have been the privileged element in the black community. They have had certain, you know, privileges that the majority of black people haven’t had, but most middle-class black people are coming home.
They don’t have any place out there anymore. They can’t stay. They are identifying, they are trying to become a part of this revolution, they are trying to give their skills to it, and this is true with the college students, black college students, around the country.
On most college campuses in the past, black college students, you know, where they were at an integrated college, they wouldn’t even speak to each other because they were in the process of integration and they were so dedicated to it. Now on every college campus across the country, now black students have black associations, black student associations. Ivy League colleges — Yale, Harvard, all of them.
Black students are on a campus, but they are getting ready to get back in the black community and serve black people. Now this means a whole new generation of what would ordinarily be considered middle-class black people are dedicated to the struggle, committed to it, are going back into the black community as participants in the black revolution, so there is going to be a whole new kind of black middle class.
Next summer[Herrington] One final thing — yes or no. … I would like to boil down two weeks of talks with you, Reverend Cleage. If there is a major disturbance this summer, it will or will not come from the black community? [Cleage] It is my honest opinion, if there is a major disturbance in Detroit this summer, it will come from the white community, but the black community will defend itself. [Fyffe] Gentlemen, our time is up. Our thanks to the Reverend Albert Cleage, chairman of the Federation for Self-determination, for being our guest today on “Spotlight” and for sharing with us his views on Black Power and black nationalism.
Our thanks, too, to our panel of reporters: Barney Morris, Bob Maher and Jim Herrington. Please remember, the questions of our reporters do not necessarily reflect their point of view; it’s their way of getting the story.
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This series would not have been possible without the kind and generous assistance of the following persons and institutions:
For the history of Jaramogi Agyeman and the Shrines of the Black Madonna during the 1960s, PAOCC Cardinals Nandi (Barbara) Martin and Karamo Omari (Ron Hewitt), Grace Boggs, Dr. Karl D. Gregory, U. S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, William W. (Billy) Smith, Mwalimu Edward Vaughn, Kristin Cleage Williams and Baba Malik Yakini.
For the history and photos of “Spotlight,” Nancy Callaway Fyffe, Jim Herrington, Chuck Stokes and the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.
For photographs and documents of Jaramogi Agyeman and the Shrine, the Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman Archives, headed by Kristin Cleage Williams; Imani Karega (Melanie Roby); the Library of Congress’ prints and photographs division; the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum archives, Austin, Tex.; the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University, Detroit; and Mr. Smith.
For photo enhancements, Kristin Cleage Williams.
For copyediting and proofreading, Eddie B. Allen, Jr. Sala Andaiye, Wende Berry, Peter Goldman, H.R. Lewis and Baba Yakini.
Finally, for inspiring this series, we would like to thank Cardinal Baye Keita Okhuyia (Frank Landy), editor of The Black Slate Digest. — PL.
Copyright © 2008 by Paul Lee