Religion and the Rise of Labor and Black Detroit

Against the Current, No. 134, May/June 2008

Mark Higbee

Faith in the City:
Preaching Radical Social Change in Detroit
by Angela D. Dillard
Foreword by Dr. Charles G. Adams
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007,
392 pages, $24.95 paper.

HISTORIANS AND OTHER scholars have given Detroit plentiful attention, including some very important books, yet in this vital new study Angela Dillard manages to approach the Motor City’s past in several crucial yet previously neglected ways. What’s most valuable about the book is her attempt to encompass such subjects as race, labor radicalism, Black religion and the civil rights movement all in one narrative.

In her analysis of the engagement of a handful of Black pastors and their allies with the political struggles of African Americans in Detroit, Dillard deals with labor, the Left and Detroit’s complex political history, as well as with the Motor City’s manifestations of white supremacy. The synthesis marks a major contribution to our knowledge of these subjects.

Dillard states that “This volume helps construct a narrative about what activism in the 1960s owed to that of the 1930s.” (1) By looking at connections between Detroit’s social activism of the 1930s and that of the 1960s, Dillard puts both the “early” and later civil rights struggles into one book, something rarely done in civil rights scholarship until recently.

Church, Civil Rights and Labor

Dillard links 1930s and 1960s activism among Black Detroit mainly through a series of biographical sketches, short organizational histories, and descriptions of various events and campaigns in Detroit. The first chapter covers the work and ministry of the Rev. Charles A. Hill, Sr, a major actor in the next few chapters as well. Much of the second part of the book is centered on another pastor, Albert B. Cleage Jr., who Dillard sees as being part of “what might be called the reconstitution of the city’s Left from the 1950s onward,” after the suppression and defeats of the Cold War era. (19)

The book is structured thematically and chronologically. Chapter 1 is a short biography of the Rev. Charles A. Hill, and what made him “a Black Religious Radical.” The second examines “The Labor-Civil Rights Community and the Struggle to Define a Progressive Faith, 1935-41,” and the third covers the World War II experiences of Dillard’s church radicals and the labor civil rights community.

These chapters demonstrate the vitality of Detroit opponents of white supremacy, and their creative ways of organizing in the city’s unique circumstances. Significantly, Dillard views this 1930s-40s early civil rights movement in Detroit as being very church centered — a departure from other studies which have found the “early” movement to be less church centered than the post-1954 movement.

After World War II came harsh Cold War repression, and Chapter 4 documents “Anticommunism and the Demise of the Early Civil Rights Community,” with often  heart-rendering descriptions. Called the “arsenal of democracy,” Detroit was not, Dillard shows, willing to adopt real equality either during the war against fascism or in the postwar years. Few of the organizations and coalitions of the early period survived the McCarthy era as viable movement centers.

Yet, Dillard argues, faith in the city was rewarded: Chapter 5 describes the emergence in the 1950s of what Dillard terms Detroit’s “second civil rights community.” It was heavily based on coalition politics. While inspired by the growing southern movement, it was essentially homegrown. But in Detroit, deindustrialization was even then well underway, and that shaped the city’s response to the growing demand for racial equality, just as events in the south inspired Black pastors and others to push forward aggressively.

In this later period, the labor movement was not a reliable ally of the Detroit radicals — and Dillard notes the historical coincidence of Rosa Parks’ arrest in Montgomery on December 1, 1955, taking place during the same week that the AFL and CIO met in convention to merge. The new federation was “mealymouthed” on racial discrimination (206).

The final full chapter looks at the ideas and actions of Rev. Cleage, the founder of the Shrine of the Black Madonna.

Rev. Charles A. Hill

In the first half, Dillard explores the intersections between the rich and varied Church experiences of Detroit’s African-American community and the city’s large industrial employers, most notably the Ford Motor Company on whose payroll roughly one fourth of Detroit’s Black population directly or indirectly depended. (6) Local issues like police brutality and the industrial union drives among Black auto workers were seen as key civil rights issues by the Black radicals.

The political activities of the Rev. Charles A. Hill Sr., pastor at Hartford Avenue Baptist Church, and his church’s engagement with the issues of the day, are nicely illuminated. So are Hill’s ideas: “For someone like Hill, a belief in ‘the Brotherhood of man’ and the ‘Fatherhood of God’ — that God is ultimately no respecter of persons — coalesced nicely with the union’s and the Left’s support of social and racial equality.” (17)

What is not easy to find in Dillard’s account is an engagement with the ideas and actions of the rank-and-file followers of the pastors and radical activists she describes; hers is a study of the leaders and organizations of the Detroit struggles. While I’d like to know more about the rank and file of these Detroit struggles, as well as more about the spiritual lives of the congregants, no doubt the available sources better document the relatively privileged leaders of these struggles.

But Dillard does describe many episodes of civil rights fights in Detroit in the early period, like the “Detroit Scottsboro” case, the frame-up trial of James Victory. Radical lawyer Maurice Sugar secured his acquittal in court. (77-9)

Dillard documents Hill’s involvement with union drives, the National Negro Congress, his congregants, and with numerous other engaged pastors, activists and organizations. She also shows how Hill and other Detroiters of his generation had to combat the hard-right racism of both Gerald L.K. Smith and the Ku Klux Klan, in addition to the more populist racism of many white workers and the corporate racism of the employers, as well as police brutality directed at the African-American community.

Significantly, Hill and some other brave Black preachers bucked the pressure of the Ford Motor Company and supported the unionization drive.  Under the cloak of prayer meetings, auto workers attended union organizing meetings at Hartford Baptist, shielded from Ford’s many spies.

One of Dillard’s most significant contributions to the history of the Black church is her observation that “The much-vaunted independence of the Black church, however, has never been automatically assured and has often been secured at a painfully high price. In point of fact, the Black church might best be seen as a contested space in which ministers, congregants, activists and other interested parties have battled for control and influence.” (5-6)

Relatively few of Detroit’s many African-American churches had outspoken or radical pastors, as those who were outspoken were unable to secure much needed jobs for their congregants at the Ford plants.

During the Second World War, Hill was part of a progressive, cross-ethnic slate of CIO-backed candidates who ran, unsuccessfully, for the Detroit Common Council. Race-baiting and red-baiting were enough to defeat the progressive slate: Hill was “branded as one of the ‘most active Communist front figures in all America’” by a newspaper on the city’s northwest side. (163)

Hill ran several more times for council, and while he was unsuccessful, no other Black candidate had previously run such credible campaigns in the city.

In her account of the 1930s and 1940s in Detroit, the Marxist left and select church leaders worked quite effectively together, contrary to the common assumption of an inextricable antagonism between the left and churches. Of course, other churches — including most Black pastors and the infamous Catholic radio priest Father Charles Coughlin — were notably hostile to the unionization drive. But instead of seeing the church-left cooperation as an oddity, she sees it as being a sensible, common-sense reaction to the circumstances of life in Detroit. As Dillard notes:

“The assumption that communists, Marxist, and associated radical are by definition “godless” is simplistic at best:  Marx’s famous characterization of religion as an opiate, in its entirety, reads: ‘Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of an unspiritual situation. It is the opiate of the people.’” (17)

In a wonderful, erudite and personal foreword, “By Your Institutions Shall You Know Them,” Dr.  Charles G. Adams, pastor of Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, identifies himself as Rev. Hill’s “prodigy and Dillard’s pastor” and recalls how his own church, in his time and earlier, played a vital part in the history described by Dillard. Rev. Charles Hill retired as Hartford’s pastor in 1968, at age 75.

The foreword is a rich account of the role of faith in his church, in the struggle for justice, and in his community’s history. Dr. Adams praises the book for its showing “how the preaching and practice of faith in God served to create active, voluntary, inclusive, secular associations of people who were motivated by their religious experiences, spiritual feelings, and doctrinal convictions to work hard in order generate nonviolent, affirmative socially inclusive changes.” (xvii)

Dr. Adams’s discussion of the differences between what “good religion” and “bad religion” accomplish in the world had, for this reviewer, a power on the printed page comparable to a great Spiritual or Gospel song performed by a great choir.

Albert Cleage and Black Christian Nationalism

One of Dillard’s most striking arguments is that the emergence of Black Power as a rallying cry and ideology for many Blacks in Detroit arose in no small part from the radical protest tradition of some of the Black churches. This argument disputes the common assumption that Black Power and Black nationalism in the 1960s was de-Christianized or entirely secular.

Much attention has been devoted to Black Power’s ideological challenge to the nonviolent Southern civil rights movement in the 1960s, as well as to its transformative power in African-American culture after about 1966. And theologians have discussed Black Power’s impact on African-American churches. Dillard’s account suggests that historians have not properly traced the social roots of Black Power or its appeal after the mid-1960s.

Perhaps no other scholar has offered as important discussion of the ideas and organizational work of Albert Cleage, Jr. In Dillard’s account, the origins of Black Power, at least in the form that emerged in Detroit with Rev. Cleage’s Shrine of the Black Madonna, and the Black Christian Nationalsm he advocated, were profoundly Christian.

Chapter 6, “Black Faith: The Rev. Albert B. Cleage Jr., Black Christian Nationalsim, and the Second Civil Rights Community in Detroit,” strikes this reviewer as the most compelling in the book. But here, as elsewhere, Dillard begs the question of what rightly constitutes a civil rights community or movement.

Was Cleage after about 1963 really a civil rights advocate? He had long objected to the very idea of an interracial church as a fantasy, distained the tactics of the Southern civil rights movement, and had no faith or hope in cross-racial political alliances. After the death of Malcolm X, Cleage opposed the Marxist George Breitman’s idea that Malcolm X, in the last year of his life, had been moving toward a kind of internationalism that focused more on economic, rather than racial oppression. (275)

To Cleage, race was the fundamental social reality, not a mere construct of an oppressive system.  Cleage’s Black nationalism was an attempt to address the needs of the Black people, but he rejected the main values and goals — interracial cooperation and a society without racial distinctions — of the Civil Rights Movement.

Dillard’s account of his ideas and influences is a real contribution to Detroit history; but the casual assumption that Cleage is properly classified as part of a “civil rights community” seems questionable. A wider category, Black liberation, would work better, and would avoid the danger of conflating the very different Detroit and southern movement experiences. Nonetheless, this chapter provides valuable insights into the man who proclaimed Christ to be Black and founded the Shine of the Black Madonna — an idea and a sacred space that each attracted considerable grassroots appeal in the late 1960s and 1970s.

These are not minor subjects, as Cleage’s Black Christian Nationalism may have had a larger grassroots following and a more enduring organizational life than other, better known expressions of Black Power born in the 1960s. (Indeed the Shrine has evolved into today’s main arm of the Democratic Party in Detroit —ed.)

Dillard shows that in his youth Cleage was deeply influenced first by the Social Gospel ideas of such Detroit preachers as Charles Hill and Horace White, and later by the criticisms of the Social Gospel that he encountered in divinity school. The Cleage style of Black Power appears, therefore, to have been deeply rooted, first, in the Social Gospel Protestantism of the early 20th century, and second, in the neo-orthodox attack on the Social Gospel advanced by Reinhold Niebuhr (who had been a Protestant pastor in Detroit in the 1920s).

This neo-orthodoxy dismissed “as unrealistic the social gospel’s conception of human nature and its suggestion that the Kingdom of God could be created on earth.” Since God’s will could not be comprehended by man, “His Kingdom simply could not be man-made,” according to the neo-orthodox critique. (243) Cleage appears to have been influenced both by followers of the Social Gospel in the Detroit ministry, and also by its divinity school critics.

The implications of rooting Black Power in the Social Gospel and its critics may be more far-reaching than what Dillard makes of her evidence. For if Black Power’s rejection of middle-class American reformism, and its embrace of revolutionary rhetoric and goals, derive in any way from the Social Gospel and its critics, then what can one make of its claim to being an original response, born in the Black community, to Black America’s needs in the 1960s?

Was Black Power a real and creative response to actual circumstances of Black life — or more of a rhetorical and intellectual throw-back to older intellectual frameworks that had arisen outside the Black community? Black Power had a massive initial appeal in the 1960s, and it surely drew on older Black nationalist foundations. But the Black nationalist currents that emerged in the 1960s, when measured for their viable strategies for African-American advancement, seem rather limited and short-lived.

Perhaps this was in part due to their derivative ideas. Merely proclaiming a rejection of the idealism of older forces — as did neo-orthodoxy toward its Social Gospel predecessors and the Black Power radicals toward the civil rights movement — is hardly the same as devising a viable radical program. Just as the neo-orthodoxy did less to change the world than the Social Gospel, Black Power failed to change the world as much as the “idealistic” civil rights movement had by 1965.

Locating the Struggle

Dillard — a native Detroiter who now teaches African-American studies at the University of Michigan — has written a very important book that everyone interested in social struggles and Detroit history should read. Unfortunately, the book contains not a single map, and even someone who knows Detroit’s geography fairly well could use a few maps with this text.

The introduction, like that in so many history monographs, can be hard to follow. Consider reading the main chapters first, then go back to the intro.

At times, the narrative is jumpy; many details are presented in ways that are hard to relate to an overall argument. But defining the borders for a subject of historical study is tremendously difficult. The contents of the book all add up, the author clearly has a passion for her subjects, and at times the prose is powerful and enticing.

Dillard’s intellectual ambitions for the book are admirably large. Faith in the City is a very important study of Detroit’s complex history of social struggles, embracing racial, political, economic, religious and legal disputes. But where exactly in the scholarly literature on the Black freedom struggle does this book belong? Dillard seems to situate it in the historiography of the Civil Rights Movement, which, in the 1950s and 1960s, was largely a southern movement. That southern movement, obviously, has been the subject of extensive study by historians, journalists, sociologists and others.

Attention to the southern struggle is well deserved — after all, that Movement overthrew the segregationist system that had prevailed in the South for over a half century, and its success at putting white supremacy on the defense and overturning its de jure foundations inspired countless liberation struggles elsewhere — from Detroit, Michigan to Derry, Ireland, from women’s liberation to anti-Vietnam War protests, from the high schools to hospital workers, and by Chicanos and Chicanas, gays and lesbians.

The southern Civil Rights Movement’s achievements can be rightly called “the civil rights revolution,” and they transformed virtually all aspects of American political and cultural life. But the movement in the South, while the most important social movement of the 20th century U.S. history, is hardly the whole story of the modern Black freedom struggle. Hence the value of Dillard’s work, and that of other historians of civil rights struggles in the North.

Martha Biondi’s To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York (2003), Beth Tompkins Bates’s Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America 1925-1945 (2001), and Clarence Taylor’s The Black Churches of Brooklyn (1994) are just a few of studies that can be profitably read side by side with Faith in the City. Each of these books contributes to both the growing literature on the Black freedom struggle in the North and to our grasp of the “early” civil rights movement.

Dillard argues that it is a wrong for the movement to be “bounded, either temporally or, for that matter, geographically” to the 1954-68 period or to the South. She sees the civil rights communities in Detroit that she has identified — one in the 1930s and 1940s, the second a generation later — as part and parcel of the larger national Civil Rights Movement, which after 1954 was indisputably mostly a southern movement. Her criticism of the periodization of much of the Civil Rights Movement historiography has a lot of merit: 1968 is a clearly arbitrary, far too King-centric date for defining even the southern Movement, and some events in the South were affected by those in the North, and vice versa.

But Dillard focuses on a movement for social change in Detroit without defining how that movement related to the southern mass Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The timing here is critical — because just as the southern Movement was reaching its peak and on the verge of defeating Jim Crow, the Detroit activists studied by Dillard departed most drastically from the values and goals of the mass southern Civil Rights Movement. Why was this?  And doesn’t it raise doubts about the Detroit activists being in the same movement as those organizing in Birmingham and Mississippi?

Why the North Was Different

The particularities of the South’s Jim Crow system, by and large, did not prevail in the North. By paying too little attention to what was distinct about the South, and what was distinct about Detroit, Dillard conflates her Detroit subjects with the southern movement. These movements were not the same.

The Detroit protest movements and activists she studies need to be understood in their own context — not as an adjunct of the southern civil rights struggle. Its members’ daily lives, and thus their consciousness and their politics and their goals were radically different than those of southern Blacks.

Being determines consciousness. In short, white supremacy had vastly different forms, North and South — and the Detroit form of white supremacy was also very different than that in most of the North.

The Detroit scene produced notable social struggles for Black people, including, as Dillard shows, some notably outspoken radical Black preachers and their supporters. But the Detroit situation was more homegrown than merely parallel to the southern struggles.

Dillard provides rich descriptions, through anecdotes and biographical sketches and organizational histories. And she shows that the Detroit movements had leaders and many grassroots participants whose roots were in the South. But that is not sufficient to show they were in the same mass movement as SNCC, SCLC and CORE, and other groups that focused on the southern struggle for equality.

This point is vital, because by the end of the period Dillard covers, it’s clear that some of her subjects from the 1960s — revolutionary Black nationalists and Black Christian Nationalism — were little interested in civil rights as such. Their demands and goals centered on a strategy of Black advancement that departed from and largely rejected a civil rights agenda.

Like most of the Detroit activists, Rev. Cleage came to disdain nonviolence — a tactic that seemed as irrelevant in Detroit as it had been transformative in the South — and the appeal of violence, be it rhetorical or real, drew many of these Detroit radicals. In contrast, the demand for civil rights is based on the belief that all citizens should have equality in all respects: Those who do not believe in that goal, or who believe it to be an unobtainable utopian fantasy, did not devote themselves to civil rights struggles.

By the mid-1960s, Dillard’s subjects were not mainly focused on civil rights issues. Thus, while they were certainly part of broad generational agitation for Black liberation, they were no more a part of the Civil Rights Movement than Marcus Garvey or Malcolm X had been.

Blatantly de jure racist laws and practices were ready targets in the South, but very hard to identify in the North. These differences shaped how mobilization and organizing could occur.  And as one observer quoted by Dillard noted in the 1950s, Black Detroiters did not compare their lives to those of Blacks in the South or even elsewhere in the North: They compared themselves to whites in Detroit. (210)

The southern Movement was, to a very large extent, victorious: It destroyed Jim Crow segregationism and compelled Congress to repeal de jure forms of racism.  Dillard’s subjects in Detroit sustained their faith and their communities, and valiantly pursued African-American liberation, but they had no historic success comparable to that of the Movement in the South. (300)  

The point is not that Dillard’s subjects are unworthy of study, or lacked courage or dedication — far from it. But the particularities of time and place matter. The Detroit activists who are studied in Dillard’s first chapters could be rightly called civil rights activists — they were part of the “early” Civil Rights Movement of the 1930s and 1940s; but the same is far less true, maybe entirely untrue, of her second generation Detroit “civil rights community.”

Cultures of Opposition

The usual accounts for the rise of Black Power stress idea that northern African Americans were disappointed with the weakness of nonviolent protest, and infuriated by news coverage of violence against civil rights activists in the South. In contrast, much of the evidence provided by Dillard suggests that the roots of Detroit’s Black nationalists’ ideology were more homegrown than rooted in the limits of nonviolent protest in the South. Had Dillard explored this in more detail, it would likely cut against the tendency to frame the Detroit story as part of one national civil rights movement story.

The Detroit struggles and the southern Movement are related and overlapping, but not the same phenomenon. Detroit might have been, in so many ways, “Up South,” but it was not the South. Neither was the Jim Crow South a huge industrial city dominated by a few massive corporations employing hundreds of thousands of laborers while also commanding the political and financial systems of the metropolitan area.

Birmingham, Alabama was the southern locale most like Detroit, but its homegrown Black liberation movement little resembled what Dillard describes in the Motor City at the same time.

Dillard’s finding that Detroit’s radical Black church tradition was key to the emergence of Detroit’s Black nationalist tendencies is very important. Dillard situates this conclusion in her broader claim, made also by many others, that “that religion has been a crucial factor in the cultures of opposition that make collective action possible. Gospel hymns and other forms of sacred music, as well as biblical stories — David’s defeat of Goliath, the story of Exodus, and the life of Christ — can be given a political spin and incorporated into an oppositional consciousness.” (11-12)

Dillard applies this broad framework — which is entirely consistent with Karl Marx’s best writings on religion — to the Detroit experience. For instance, she brilliantly shows that it is a serious mistake to regard Black Power, as many do, as some kind of “de-Chrstianized,” totally secular ideology.

The Reverend Albert Cleage Jr. and other founding figures of the Black theology movement were perhaps the Black Power advocates who most successfully articulated a theory and program to fit that slogan. Their work was heavily Christian in intellectual content, moral focus and organizational structure.

Cleage’s church, for example, always maintained a vital and large youth ministry.  In Detroit, they also created organizations and attracted supporters who actively pursed nationalist goals for decades. While hardly a mass movement by the late 1970s, it was neither a tiny sect nor an isolated group infatuated with illusory, nihilistic promises of armed revolution.

Angela Dillard’s book and its historical empathy for its subjects ensure that the lives and choices, the beliefs and politics, of her radical Black Detroit preachers and activists will be recalled. They endure in Faith in the City as comprehensible yet complex human beings who, while living in historical circumstances they had not chosen and did not like, bravely tried to alter those circumstances.

She shows that these lives were significant parts of the broad African-American freedom struggle. The respect that Dillard pays to her Detroit subjects brought to my mind a famous passage from The Making of the English Working Class by E.P. Thompson.  In his preface, speaking of his lower-class subjects and the defeats they suffered, Thompson thundered out his objection to “the enormous condescension of posterity” (The Making of the English Working Class [1963], 12).

Similarly, Faith in the City rescues its subjects from that “enormous condescension.” And in his preface, Dr. Charles Adams, uses very different language to make much the same point as Thompson: Dr. Adams praises Dillard for ensuring that those who had faith in the city are remembered, and comprehended. We can all give thanks for this terrific and important book.

ATC 134, May-June 2008