Black, Christian, Radical and Beloved
In 2011, the Shrine of the Black Madonna celebrates the centennial of the birth of Rev. Albert Cleage
This article was originally published in the February 2010 issues of B.L.A.C. That month marked the 10th anniversary of Rev. Albert Cleage's death.
During Black History Month, we generally celebrate the most well known African-American activists. But there was a Detroit activist that worked alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and who was just as outspoken as Malcolm X. He not only impacted the city, but the nation—and has yet to receive his due.
This month marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Rev. Albert B. Cleage, a theologian, nationalist, civil rights leader and father.
"He's somebody that we need to get the information out on because he was a major influence on Detroit politics. He was a major influence on Black nationalist thought, locally and internationally. And he had a major influence on the development of Black theology," says Kefentse Chike, a lecturer in Wayne State University's Africana Studies department.
"I think he should be remembered not just by the African-American community but the American community as [a whole] as one of the seminal figures in the movement," says his daughter, Atlanta-based writer Pearl Cleage. "I often meet people who heard my father speak and their lives are changed because of it… We are probably more likely to think of him as doing something wonderful for our people, which he did, but he also helped to move this country forward."
While Cleage was an activist of national importance, arguably the majority of people he impacted most directly were African Americans in Detroit.
He established the Central United Church of Christ here in 1956. In 1970, shortly after the unveiling of an 18-foot painting of a Black Madonna in the church, the name was changed to Shrine of the Black Madonna Pan African Orthodox Christian Church. It was a hub of progressive, African-centered, religious, cultural and political activity.
"My father was a dedicated Black activist and he lived his life organizing people for change," says his daughter. And history confirms that he was very good at it.
Says Chike, a member of the Shrine for 30 years, "I think his most important impact was devising a philosophy and programs that dealt with personal transformation, helping people to understand the need to rid themselves of a mentality that was put in place by slavery and oppression."
In the 1970s, Cleage expanded the church to Atlanta and Houston. Also known as Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman (which means leader, defender and blessed man, according to the book "Faith in America"), Cleage changed the life of Cardinal Aswad Walker, current leader of the Shrine in Houston.
Walker met Cleage when he joined the Houston Shrine of the Black Madonna in 1990. "What I found most impressive was that when he looked at people he didn't see you for that moment, he saw the potential in you," he says. "[The church was established] to restore our people to our former place of dignity and glory in the world.
"Our ministry is [geared] toward the surviving generations of an ongoing Black holocaust," says Walker. "We celebrate Jesus as the Black Messiah."
Says Chike of Cleage's declaration that Jesus was Black, "That was very powerful and it reaffirmed ideas associated with Black power at the time.
"He was able to re-Africanize Christianity or Christian theology," Chike says. "Part of what he did from a theological perspective was reconnect Christianity to its African roots and give it an African interpretation, and in a sense, rescue it from what White supremacy had done to it."
Chike explains how the Shrine of the Black Madonna is different from other churches. "Typically, the Black church teaches an individual salvation theology. It also teaches what some of us would call a pie-in-the-sky theology, which suggests that we should suffer here on earth and look for our reward in heaven," he says. "Part of the theology of the Shrine of Black Madonna is we as Black people are powerless under the current situation that we exist in. We don't have the institutions that we need to sustain ourselves and our salvation lies in our ability to come together and build the institutions that we need here on earth rather than focusing on a reward coming in the afterlife."
Cleage's leadership and influence extended far beyond the church. He ran for several political offices and although he never won an election, his candidacies and advocacy led to the creation of the Black Slate, an organization that was instrumental in electing Detroit's first Black mayor, Coleman Young, as well as other political officials.
"Rev. Cleage, particularly in the 1960s, was very instrumental in the Black Power movement," Chike says. He was involved in political groups that worked toward a wide range of goals, including ending segregation and ridding the public school system of racist textbooks.
Cleage's work in the political and religious arenas was inextricably linked to his efforts to build Black-owned institutions that still exist today. In addition to churches in Detroit, Houston and Atlanta, there are also Shrine of the Black Madonna bookstores in all three cities. In Detroit, the Dr. Albert B. Cleage Sr. Memorial Health Center, a nonprofit community health organization named after Cleage's father, provides free medical services.
Walker says that the Atlanta Shrine has an award-winning nursery and elementary school. According to Chike, "Cleage was very instrumental as an antecedent to the [African-centered education] movement." Chike also points out that the Shrine maintains a 100-unit apartment building in Detroit.
And because of Cleage's leadership, the Shrine of the Black Madonna owns Beulah Land, a 4,000-acre farm in Calhoun Falls, S.C. It was there that he passed away on Feb. 20, 2000, at age 88. Says Walker, he was visiting Beulah Land where he intended to produce food for charitable disaster relief.
Cleage was known for taking care of people. "He was passionate about excellence. In one sense he was almost uncompromising and not willing to settle for mediocrity," says Walker. "[He was always] pushing the ministers and members, and even though he had a very hard and strong push, he was extremely compassionate and he was very selfless."
His youngest daughter can attest to that. "One of the pleasures of my life was for him to see a play that I wrote when I was grown and say I'd done a good job," Pearl Cleage says. She recalls that her father did not give praise lightly.
Cleage married Doris Graham in 1943, the same year he was ordained. The couple had two children, Pearl and Kristin. Even though they divorced 13 years after their nuptials, he remained involved in his children's lives. "I thought he was great. I went everywhere with my father," says Pearl Cleage.
According to Chike, Cleage made a profound shift in 1972. "He turned his focus from being involved in community organizing in an external way and turned inward toward building the church," he says.
Before that point, when Detroit had been one of the largest cities in the country, Cleage was one of the most important leaders in the city. Says Chike, "So many things that Rev. Cleage projected came to fruition." He empowered African Americans—politically, economically and spiritually—and he produced results benefiting communities to this day.