South Side priest urges students to empower all races

Amy Hamblin

Having lost his foster son to gang crossfire, the Rev. Michael Pfleger knows firsthand about the problems riddling Chicago.

As the featured speaker at Monday’s Medill School of Journalism Crain Lecture Series, Pfleger urged a beyond-capacity audience at the McCormick Tribune Center auditorium not to be complacent about the state of American society today.

Pfleger, who was invited to commemorate the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with the Northwestern community, spoke about his personal campaign to transform his community in a speech titled “Reawakening the Dream.”

The changes brought about in the 36 years since King’s death are not enough, Pfleger said.

“Racism is America’s greatest addiction,” he said. “The civil rights movement is still alive, but it’s limping.”

It is still crucial to continue to empower the black community and bring equality to all races and religions, he said.

He asked audience members to continue King’s tradition of activism. Pfleger said only certain parts of King’s actions are emphasized — specifically his less controversial stances — and the public must begin to understand his more radical views.

“We have defined (King) as an olive branch,” Pfleger said. “Dr. King was a radical, a revolutionary.”

Like King, Pfleger has dedicated his life to fighting for social justice. He wages his battle on Chicago’s South Side streets, where he serves as a priest for St. Sabina Church, a Catholic church in a predominantly black neighborhood.

Pfleger’s aggressive crusade against drug and alcohol use led to Chicago’s ban on billboards advertising tobacco and liquor. He also has participated in many protests, resulting in his arrest for civil disobedience.

“I still am a street fighter,” he said.

His efforts have helped to revitalize the St. Sabina neighborhood and his church, which was supposed to close soon after his arrival in 1975. As part of his attempts to clean up the neighborhood, he also created a community center that offers after-school activities for children.

While his popularity within his church has increased greatly, Pfleger said his popularity with church officials has dwindled. Some officials are not pleased with his arrest record and outspoken nature, he said.

Pfleger said he is disappointed in the church because it has failed to be “an agent of change.”

“The church is the greatest institution in a failed society,” he said. “The last thing Jesus said before he ascended to the right hand of the Father is ‘Go out into the world,’ not ‘Go to church.'”

Marcia Walker, an Education sophomore, said she admired Pfleger’s message, because it applies to all races and all people.

“(Pfleger) brings a different background, but one that speaks to more than just the African American population,” she said. “Even a person who is not as religious (as Pfleger) can’t overlook the fact that we need a moral creed and a moral standard.”