A Way of Travel “From the 1830s through the 1950s, people traveled in trains pulled by steam locomotives. Cars in these trains were almost always arranged in a particular order—an order that reflected social hierarchy. Coal-burning steam engines spewed smoke and cinders into the air, so the most privileged passengers sat as far away from the locomotive as possible. The first passenger cars—the coaches—were separated from the locomotive by the mail and baggage cars. In the South in the first half of the 20th century, the first coaches were “Jim Crow cars,” designated for black riders only. Passenger coaches for whites then followed. Long-distance trains had a dining car, located between the coaches and any sleeping cars. Overnight trains included sleeping cars—toward the back because travelers in these higher-priced cars wanted to be far away from the locomotive’s smoke. A parlor or observation car usually brought up the rear“
My father was 18 in June of 1929 when he graduated from Northwestern High School in Detroit. That fall he entered Wayne State University. After a year, he decided he wanted to attend a black college and for a year he went to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He had been to his father’s hometown of Athens, Tennessee with his family while growing up to visit family that remained there. They always drove down, stopping with relatives or friends on the way because hotels were segregated and unavailable to black travelers. This was my father’s first time riding in a segregated Jim Crow car.
In a 1967 sermon titled “An Enemy Hath Done This“, he reminisces about this trip. I have excerpted it from the book “The Black Messiah” by Albert B. Cleage, Jr., pages 160 and 161. Published by Sheed & Ward 1968
Thoughts on a Jim Crow Car
by Albert B. Cleage Jr.
I remember a few years ago when black folks were forced to ride in Jim Crow Cars, I went down South. It was a horrible thing to sit there in a Jim Crow car and wonder why all of us should be jammed into this little car just because we were black. It was the first time I had been down South, and I was very ignorant. I couldn’t even find the car to begin with. When you climbed into that car you had to have some kind of sinking feeling that there had to be something wrong with you. You knew the man was right because it was his train. It was his station. He was letting you ride. He had to be right. So you couldn’t help thinking that the man wouldn’t be putting me way back on this old beat-up piece of car unless there was something wrong with me.
Even then, on a Jim Crow car, there was a better feeling than in the plush cars in which the white folks rode.Sometimes we over look those little things, but honestly, the first time I rode on a Jim Crow car I said, “This is the nicest train I have ever been on.” I was going down to Fisk, my first year in college. It was the nicest train car I have ever been on because the people had something together. We ought to have been tearing up the train because we had no business back there. But instead, we were laughing and talking and sharing our lunch, you know, the shoe box with fried chicken and soul food. You know how you how white folks act on a train, everybody taking care of his own business and looking all evil at everybody else. Well, these folks were saying, “Won’t you have some?” and walking up and down the aisle and making sure everybody did have some. With no white folks around, everyone was relaxed and friendly. I thought to myself, this is another kind of train. It is a Jim Crow thing the white man has put us in but even here we have something he doesn’t know anything about.
That didn’t justify it because we had no business in there, sweet as it was. There was something wrong with it, and deep down inside all of us knew it. One of the things that made us friendly was the fact that we were sharing the same kind of oppression. We all hated the same man. I know you would like me to say it another way, we were unfriendly to the same man, or something. But we were together because the man forced us together, and this little Jim Crow car symbolized it. When we got off the car, it didn’t matter where the station was, we all headed straight for wherever it was black folks lived. The car was just a symbol of the life that we lived. I had never been on a Jim Crow car but I had lived in a Jim Crow community all of my life
Below is a partial transcription of the sermon delivered above in it’s entirety.
Excerpted from “No
Halfway Revolution,” text of a sermon delivered at Central United Church of
Christ, the Shrine of the Black Madonna, on July 23, 1967, several hours after
the Detroit Rebellion began:
said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines.’ Then be bowed with all his might; and
the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people that were in it. So the
dead whom he slew at his death were more than those whom he had slain during
his life” (Judges 16:30).
lesson is taken from the Book of Judges. While the riots were going on down in
Watts [in August 1965], I preached on the same text. Samson is a good Biblical
figure and he fits into the framework of riots and rebellion.
The Book of
Judges has to do with the early leaders of Israel who presided over the young
Nation Israel and were called “judges.” Samson was never a leader of Israel in
the sense of having an official position. Yet his story is included in the Book
of Judges because he was a leader in the fight against the Philistines. …
period when Israel was in bondage to the Philistines, Samson was the person
people looked to. He was a kind of center, the outstanding personality. Yet he
was different from all the other judges, essentially because the times were
different. Israel needed somebody like Samson.
I remember when
the riot in Watts was going on, the front page of Life Magazine pictured a young black militant with a do-rag around
his head. He was a symbol of what was happening. He represented rebellion against oppression.
So I have
selected the same Scripture lesson now because that which started in Watts two
years ago and which is now sweeping the nation is the same kind of rebellion
against oppression which Samson represented in Israel. The same kind of hoodlum
character emerges as some kind of peculiar hero because he does the things
which have to be done at a particular time in human history.
any hero kind of person in normal circumstances. Normally people would have
frowned on him. They would have called him a hoodlum. They wouldn’t have listed
him in their religious scriptures as a “judge” of Israel. But during this
particular time, he had what everybody wanted. He wasn’t afraid, he didn’t mind
dying, he was emotional, he struck out against oppression. So everybody called
him a judge of Israel. …
A riot becomes a
rebellion when people tend to support the little group of people who begin some
kind of violence. In America today, we have riots or rebellions taking place in
almost every city across the country. …
This is the kind
of times in which we live. We had our own riot here in the City of Detroit.
Riot or rebellion, you pick your own word for it. I think what we had is a
riot. I think it has been participated in by relatively few people — so far.
stations called me and asked if I wanted to issue a statement asking people to
cool it. I said I had been trying to get white people to do something that
would make it possible to cool it for years, and nobody had paid any attention,
so I didn’t have any statements about cooling it now.
I tried to
explain that if everything is alright in Detroit, if nobody is alienated, if
nobody feels oppressed, if all black people feel that there are other things
they can do to change the situation, if they are confident that they have
alternatives to violence, then it is just a little thing that broke out and it
won’t last for long.
But if all black
people in Detroit feel that they are helpless and hopeless, and that there is
no chance of solving their problems peaceably, that they can’t solve them by
the ballot or by organizing or by economics, then you have a rebellion on your
hands — because, in that case, more black people are going to join in, once it
There is a
difference then between a riot and a rebellion. A riot is a little group,
perhaps more interested in looting than in freedom. But a rebellion is a
community that has decided that it will no longer tolerate the kind of racial
oppression that it has been forced to tolerate.
So across the
country we are getting a combination. In some communities there are riots.
Little bands hear about what is happening somewhere else and think it might be
good to have one here. And in other communities, it is not a riot at all; it is
around and say, we are tired of these slums. We are tired of all the conditions
that we have to put up with. We are tired of the whole situation and we are not
going to tolerate it any longer. And then a whole community erupts, and other
people say, we don’t know why it happened. That is a rebellion. And more and
more of these eruptions are rebellions, rather than riots.
Now in any
period of rapid social change … you are going to get all kinds of people
participating, and everybody who participates is not going to be a great
freedom fighter. If you start a fight on a corner because your freedom has been
transgressed, there is going to be somebody who comes up just because there is
a crowd of people and picks all the pockets he can.
mean that freedom wasn’t involved in the first fight. That just means that
somebody else who was broke or knows how to pick pockets utilized the situation.
But when that
happens, and we all stand back and say, “there was nothing going on but some
people picking pockets,” that isn’t true. And usually that is not true in a
community, no matter how much emphasis is placed upon the looting. Usually
there are other things that are important to the people. There are people who
loot, just as there are people who do every other kind of thing that they want
to do for their own personal satisfaction. …
As long as we
had a place and we knew where it was (the man had made it for us), and we were
afraid to get out of it, there was no possibility of a riot or a rebellion or
whatever you call it.
I point this out
to show you that there is some good in what is going on. It must mean that a
whole lot of black people no longer believe that they “have a place.” And
whether you like the expression that this new feeling takes or not, this change
is a fact, and that is good.
I prayed for,
lo, these many years that there would come a day when we wouldn’t know our
place, and if that’s what is indicated throughout the country, that
increasingly black people no longer know their place, then I say that is good.
If not knowing
our place leaves us for the moment confused so that we do some things that are
not constructive in the sense of planned campaigns for freedom, then that is a
part of the struggle, an inevitable part of the struggle. …
In a rebellion
or riot, a lot of people are concerned about things other than self. I am not
talking about the looters now — those who are trying to steal what they can and
get it home for themselves. They are just like the middle-class. I am talking
about those who are outraged, whether it is a sensible outrage or an irrational
outrage, outraged at the indignities that black people have to live with.
strike out not selfishly but because they identify with a group. They identify
with black people, and a policeman doesn’t have to shoot them before they are
outraged at police brutality. A policeman doesn’t have to beat them over the
head personally before they become involved in a reaction against police
is a complex thing, this struggle for freedom. It is so easy after we become
involved in a struggle to say, “Well, we have gone far enough now, let’s cool
it. I got some of the things I wanted. I got my job, I have been promoted, I
got a poverty program job now. Let’s call it all off now.”
what we were trying to get from the very beginning wasn’t something for you. It
was equality for all of us. And when we once started it about 13 years ago,
there wasn’t any calling it off.
Now you have
been talking all this time about “I want freedom, I would give anything for
freedom, I am tired of whitey, I am tired of him being on my back, I want to
run my own community.” You have been saying it, but it is harder to say it now
because they have fought on 12th Street and it may be on your street
soon. It is not over by any means. …
We were all for
the people in Newark [during the uprising in mid-July 1967] because we said
they were striking a blow for freedom. We said, “Isn’t it wonderful, what they
are doing?” And this Sunday some of you say, “Are those Niggers crazy? There
they go, just acting a fool, up and down 12th Street, robbing and
Plenty of them are acting a fool up and down 12th Street. And soon
they are going to be acting a fool up and down Linwood Street. They are going
to be acting a fool all across town, up and down Dexter, up and down Joy Road.
But that is a
part of what you started. You didn’t think you were going to have a rebellion,
a freedom struggle, and nobody was going to get hurt, did you? Did you think it
was going to go on everywhere else, and they were coming to Detroit in the end
and say, “You all are black, too. We are going to give you the things that
these other people were fighting and dying for. We are going to give it to you
because you all were so good.” It doesn’t happen like that. When it started, it
started for everybody.
Some of the
people who holler so much about violence had a part in starting it. [NAACP
executive secretary] Roy Wilkins doesn’t want to be reminded of it now, but
when they started taking these cases to the Supreme Court, when the NAACP won
the case to outlaw segregation in schools throughout the South, that was one of
the first gunshots of the rebellion.
And Wilkins can
say now that he doesn’t like what is happening, but he had a big part in
starting it because at that time we didn’t know what we were. We didn’t know
what the possibilities were in human life. We didn’t know what we could do.
When the Supreme Court said [in its school desegregation decision on May 17,
1954] you have to give equal education, we said if we have to have equal
education, there are a whole lot of other things we have to have too.
King said he didn’t believe in a whole lot of things which are now going on.
But when he had the bus boycott in Montgomery [from Dec. 5, 1955-Dec. 20,
1956], that was the second shot. When black people started marching in
Montgomery and white folks couldn’t stop them, black people all over the
country said, “Look here, the man hasn’t got as much strength as we thought he
had.” That was the beginning of our changed conception of ourselves, and a
changed evaluation of the white man.
Then some people
said, “We are not going to ride in the back of the bus anymore.” So we had the
Freedom Riders [beginning in May 1961]. The whites burned up busses, they
turned them over, they whipped black men and women over the head, but the
Freedom Riders didn’t stop. Another shot. The rebellion is going on, people’s
ideas are changing. …
A few years ago
a black man stepped off the sidewalk in one of those Southern towns if a white
man looked like that was what he wanted him to do. When you come from the stage
where you step off the sidewalk to the point where you are ready to let police
dogs and everybody else try to stop you but you keep on, you have come a long
way in your mind. …
Even in Detroit,
provincial and backward as we are, we have been thinking differently the last
few years. … You remember the Freedom March in Detroit when more than 300,000
black people marched down Woodward Avenue [on June 23, 1963]? What happened at
Cobo Hall when we got there is something else.
But we marched
in protest, 300,000 of us. Even then, we were in the process of changing. Our
thinking was changing. When you start this process, when you start black people
deciding that they are going to be equal; that they are going to change
conditions; that the white man is not going to keep them in bondage and slavery
and oppression; that if be does, he is going to have to do it with force and
naked power, then a whole new world is being born. That is what we are in the
midst of now.
Carmichael [chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] screams
“Black Power,” he is only putting into a phrase the change which has been going
on for almost fifteen years. Things had reached the point where the change
could be put into a phrase. And so Stokely said “Black Power,” and everybody
screamed “Black Power,” and the white man said — “uh-uh.”
Then the white
man began to ask, “What is Black Power, what do you mean? What is the
philosophy of Black Power?” But the white man knew that some big and basic
change had already taken place, or Stokely Carmichael could not have cried
“Black Power” and gotten a Black Power response.
This is the kind
of thing that we are in the midst of everywhere in these United States. You
look at the paper now and you wonder at the places that rebellions or riots are
breaking out. Little communities that don’t have enough black people for you to
feel comfortable in are fighting — 3,000 in a community of 80,000, and they are
tearing up the town.
But those 3,000
have been systematically mistreated and oppressed, and when they get ready to
strike back, they don’t always care whether they win or whether they lose. This
we have got to understand.
Most of you are
rational. You are for freedom, for justice, for equality. You make rational
decisions, you are going to fight in a rational kind of way, you realize that
there are certain things you can do.
But you know
this freedom thing is exploding in people’s heads. And everybody is not going
to be rational about it. When someone decides, “They have been mistreating my
momma and my grandmamma, they have been mistreating all of us, and I don’t like
it,” they are not all going to be rational about it. …
happens in a rebellion is not sensible. …
You try to give at every step a sensible alternative to violence, as we
do here at the Shrine of the Black Madonna. We believe in political action. Now
a lot of black people say, “I don’t care about political action, that is just
the white man’s bag.” Well, that is what they think.
We have got to
try political action because that is an alternative to violence. We have got to
use picket lines, boycotts, all the things that offer the possibility of power
without the necessity of violence. We try to do those things. That doesn’t mean
that at the same time we look with disdain on these other people who are
fighting in this country for the same cause that we are fighting for.
We have got to
understand that it takes all kinds of people to fight a rebellion, and a lot of
them are not going to be doing it the way you are doing it at any single
moment. And a whole lot of people are not going to agree with the way you are
doing it, either.
It won’t be too
long before they will be calling you “Uncle Tom,” because unless you throw a brick
you are an Uncle Tom. That would be a logical development, wouldn’t it? But you
understand why people do what they do.
essentially we are trying to get free and we want justice and we are no longer
talking about love and all those other things that cluttered up people’s minds
for so long. We want justice and we are going to fight for it. But there are a
lot of ways to fight. Because we fight one way, let’s not join in some
universal denunciation of people fighting in some other kind of way.
goes on. There is no halfway revolution. When it starts, it is going to go to
its logical conclusion. Either we get free or we end up in concentration camps.
You can understand that. There is no turning back, no stopping. You may wish
you hadn’t started, but you did. It is going on and there is no way you can
stop it. You can try to utilize reason, you can channel power, but you can’t
stop it. …
years now we have been engaged in a process of trying to break the black man’s
identification with the white man, so that a black man says, “I’m a black man
and I am not ashamed of it. I am a black man and I don’t feel I have to go
along with anything the white man says.” …
determine our heroes. Recall, again, in the Book of Judges, how Samson was
considered one of the judges of Israel because he lived at a time when they
needed that kind of person, fearless, strong, with a deep hatred for the enemy.
And how Samson fought. And remember the end of the Scripture lesson this
wonder, “What are they trying to do, what do they hope to accomplish?” Remember
when Samson was in the Temple and the Philistines were all around, making fun
of him, robbing him of his dignity. They brought him out because be symbolized
the enemy whom they had fought against, the enemy who had humiliated them so
many times. …
And a little boy
brought Samson out and put him in between these two big pillars that held up
the Temple. His hair had begun to grow back because he had been down in the
dungeon so long, and with it his strength returned. He asked the little boy to
put his hands on the two pillars because he couldn’t even see. They had blinded
him. And the little boy put his hands on the pillars so Samson could support
himself. And when Samson got his hands on the pillars, he knew what he was
going to do.
You may not like
it, you may not agree with it, but Samson spoke right out to God about it. “Let
me die with the Philistines. Oh God, that I may be avenged upon the Philistines
for one of my eyes.” You have to understand that indignation, anger, hatred,
all of them stemming from systematic oppression, can develop to the point where
an individual says, “I am willing to die if I can take a whole bunch of them
That is what
Samson said. I am not quoting from anybody in Detroit or Newark. That is the
Bible. “‘Let me die with the Philistines.’ Then he bowed with all his might and
the house fell upon the Temple and upon all the people who were in it. So the
dead he slew at his death were more than those he had slain during his life.”
This you are
going to have to understand because this is a part of the rebellion. There are
people like this in Detroit, Newark, Birmingham, California, New York, Chicago
who are willing to destroy even themselves if they can express antagonism, if
they can strike out against oppression. So to the Hebrew people, the Jews,
Samson is a great hero.
Who knows but
that a hundred years from today we may remember as heroes some of these very
individuals we call hoodlums today, who are striking out for freedom? We don’t
know. But they fight for freedom in their way and we in ours, confident that
God will see that freedom comes. …
(Source: Albert B. Cleage, Jr. The
Black Messiah [Kansas City, Kan.:
Sheed Andrews and McNeel-Universal Press Syndicate, 1968], pp. 122-28)
Edited by Paul Lee
Other posts relating to the Detroit Riot/Rebellion
My father, then known as Rev. Albert B. Cleage jr preaching. This is rather a long sermon, about 45 minutes. He talks about growing up in the black church in Detroit with no use for religion until attending Plymouth Congregational Church and hearing Rev. White preach. He mentions attending Oberlin Seminary and finishes up by sharing a bit from an article by Dr. Harding in a religious magazine. This was just at the start of 1967. What a year was to come. Click on the documents below to enlarge.
It was 1968. In the United States and around the world there were demonstrations, wars in Vietnam and Biafra, police actions in Mexico and Chicago, riots and tanks in the streets of Prague. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. People fighting for their rights were wondering how to change their tactics to fit the repression.
Today is the 103th Anniversary of the birth of my father, Albert B. Cleage Jr (Aka Jaramogi Abebe Ageyeman). In remberance, I am posting his sermon notes from June 23, 1968 where he preached about changes needed to program ourselves for Power instead of slavery. Click to enlarge.
As Christmas approaches, I remember my father’s sermons from that time of year. Here is the Sunday Bulletin for Sunday, December 11, 1966, the sermon notes, a flyer for an evening program held the same day and one of the songs sung by the Choir that day at Central United Church of Christ, Detroit. And right beneath this paragraph, the audio of the actual sermon.