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Father Pfleger’s Martin Luther King Day warning: Don’t soften King’s message

Father Michael Pfleger St. SabinChurch Chicago speaks East AurorHigh School Monday January 21 during school's annual observance MartLuther King Jr.

Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church in Chicago speaks at East Aurora High School on Monday, January 21, during the school's annual observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 23, 2013 6:38AM

Instead of bearing witness to President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in prime seats in Washington, D.C., Father Michael Pfleger went to an Aurora High School Monday night with a Martin Luther King Day warning:

The slain civil rights leader’s message must not be watered down, and he should not be treated like a history lesson.

“Let me make it clear. If you’ve studied Dr. King, his message was prophetic, and his message was radical,” the pastor from Chicago’s South Side said.

It also was rooted in the radical Gospel of Jesus Christ, Pfleger said.

Pfleger spoke at East Aurora High School to preach King’s message on a bitterly cold Monday night.

East Aurora schools spokesman Clayton Muhammad said Pfleger has lived King’s message for the last 32 years as pastor of St. Sabina Church in the Auburn Gresham community. Pfleger has been a voice for the voiceless, he said.

“I don’t know another man out of Chicago who stands in the times of challenge and controversy other than Father Michael Pfleger,” Muhammad said.

Pfleger spoke of what he described as two dangerous trends happening today with King’s legacy.

First, the move to water down what King preached — to make him comfortable, safe and acceptable to the status quo, Pfleger said.

“We must not hijack [King’s] identity, and we must not water down his call to conscience. Martin Luther King did not come to make people comfortable. He came to make us uncomfortable with things as they are and to call things what they ought to be,” Pfleger said.

Pfleger said Americans also must not fall into the trap to celebrate King as a history lesson. “When we just call on him and remember him for a day and then go back to business as usual, I believe we become the modern day co-conspirators to the assassination of who Dr. King was and what he came to do to America,” he said.

“If we want to honor him, we must pick up his mantle and do what he did and live how he lived and witness what he gave to our country.”

King wrote in 1967 that the country had a choice between chaos and community — a direction to take.

“In 2013, we have lost a lot of the ground that we had in 1968 when Dr. King was killed in this country,” Pfleger said. “The poor of America, and people of color in America still live in the basement of a great society.”

Even with Obama in the White House, the door of opportunity for the masses is still shut, he said. In Chicago, some 50 percent of Chicago public school children are dropping out of high school. In low-income neighborhoods nearly one-quarter of people are unemployed, and children are being routinely killed.

“That’s unacceptable in America,” he said.

Pfleger shared an intimate story of his time with Coretta Scott King after she received the body of her slain husband Martin Luther King Jr. at the Atlanta airport.

A strong woman, she grieved: crying, screaming and hollering over King’s body in Memphis, in private, “like Martin did,” Pfleger recounted.

But as she stood at the end of the casket at the end of the plane in Atlanta, she lost it.

“[She said]: ‘What made me lose my emotion is I realized in that moment we did not even have money to bury him.’ Because Martin never took a salary,” Pfleger said. “Martin did what he did because it was right.”

“It’s time for us as America to do what’s right,” Pfleger shouted. “Not because it gets us some position, or titles... because it’s right.”

Children and adults today might not have been at Memphis, Montgomery, Birmingham, or the march on Washington, D.C., when others fought for civil rights, Pfleger said.

“But understand, we’re here now. This is our moment. This is our opportunity, the chance to get it right. The dream, the dream of Dr. King is in our hands,” Pfleger said.

“By generations yet unborn, it’s great that we can look back and say thank you, Martin,” Pfleger said. “But 50 years from now, will somebody look back at you and I and say thank you for what you did to keep the dream alive?”

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