At a talk at Fordham, Father Michael Pfleger, Ph.D., described going to a mostly white, Catholic neighborhood in Chicago recently with a group of African Americans from St. Sabina’s parish on the city’s mostly black South Side. The group was there peacefully to demand information on the killing of a young black man by an off-duty police officer.
Father Pfleger’s South Side contingent of 30 people was greeted by nearly 700 area residents, many of whom are city workers, particularly police. The residents threatened the South Side parishioners with violence and death threats and considered him—a white Catholic—as a traitor, he said.
Such racially charged demonstrations will become more prevalent in the coming years, he warned, and it will require unity among like-minded activists seeking social justice for all races.
“Dr. Martin Luther King said that the moment that we become just a black organization, we lose,” said Father Pfleger, delivering the Graduate School of Education’s Centennial Lecture on Dec. 5 in impassioned tones. “We must be with Muslims, Christians and Jews, with white and with brown and with black. We must show that there’s a unity we have that is more powerful than the unity of those against us. He was right.”
He said that with hate speech and white nationalism on the rise, efforts to unite have not been this difficult since the 1950s and 1960s.
“If we connect with each other, I have no question that we can turn this thing around,” he added. “I’m a Christian, so I’m a prisoner of hope. It’s not if we can; it’s if we want to.”
Father Pfleger’s talk, titled “America Needs Game Changers,” honored the legacy of Fordham professor Barbara L. Jackson, Ed.D., whom GSE Dean Virginia Roach, Ed.D., called “one of the first African-American female leaders in a system of education that didn’t largely recognize African-American leaders nor female leaders.”
Like Jackson, Father Pfleger was a game changer. In the 1970s, he took over what was once a predominantly Irish Catholic parish on the South Side of Chicago as the parish gradually attracted greater numbers of African Americans. His efforts on behalf of his new congregants often put him at odds with Church leadership and City Hall, but his leadership has helped make St. Sabina Church one of the largest black Catholic congregations in the nation.
Father Pfleger said that he likes speaking to student audiences, because they’re more willing to take action than older adults who are already “waiting to go to heaven or hell.” Addressing an audience of many future teachers, he advised GSE students going into underserved neighborhoods to listen and learn from their communities, particularly if they come from a different background.
“If you are a white person like I am, in an all-black community, then understand every day: ‘I am a visitor in somebody else’s community; I don’t know the community better than they do.’”
He also encouraged the future teachers to live in the community they teach and to believe that every child in that classroom is as gifted and talented as the teacher.
“Don’t come in thinking you’re doing some nice thing in the black or brown community,” he said. “If you have that kind of attitude, please get out.”
He reminded them that teachers learn from their students.
“These are great minds,” he said. “If you ever wonder how brilliant our young people are, [remember that]these are young people who survive with no resources, no help, and no support—but they survive in the midst of it all.”