Until recently, Barack Obama's presidential campaign was premised on the future. The senator from Illinois orated floridly about bringing "change" to the country; a New Political Man, he pledged to soothe the feuds of old and usher in a national reconciliation amid troubled times. With the emergence of divisive figures like Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's longtime friend and acerbically Afro-centric pastor, the focus has shifted to the past, and with good reason. As FrontPageMag.com senior editor Jacob Laksin discovered in his recent reporting from Chicago's South Side, the predominantly black community where Obama launched his political career in the eighties and nineties, Wright may be the best known of Obama's friends and allies, but he may not even be the most controversial. In a series that will appear in FrontPage over the next three days, Laksin explores Obama's ties to the South Side personalities who helped propel him to power, but whose continuing – and reciprocated – friendship with the candidate raises troubling questions about his ability to forge a new political consensus, especially on the fractious issue of race. To evaluate Obama's campaign and its grand promises, readers must first come to know the world of Chicago politics from which he emerged. -- The Editors
CHICAGO – Barack Obama’s years as a community organizer in Chicago are at once the most well-known and the least well-understood facet of his biography. It is common knowledge that the Democratic candidate got his start in politics on the city’s predominantly black South Side. Yet the people who surrounded him in those days, and who ultimately would propel him to higher office, remain a mystery.
It follows that to evaluate Obama’s campaign, and particularly its grand promises to transcend racial and partisan divides, it is first necessary to examine the community that Obama cites as his great education on race. And to do that, one must get to know those figures who not only were instrumental in Obama’s rise but who have remained fervent supporters of his campaign and who, in turn, enjoy Obama’s continued support.
One must begin with men like Father Michael Pfleger.
During a Good Friday service this March, Fr. Pfleger, a pastor at St. Sabina’s church on Chicago’s South Side, bounded up to the pulpit and launched into a scathing sermon against “the stupid people.”
Despite the setting, Fr. Pfleger was not talking about those who had strayed from God. The targets of his scorn, rather, were those in the media – Pfleger singled out FOX’s Bill O’Reilly and MSNBC for special opprobrium – who had dared to cast a critical eye on a local prophet, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
That Pfleger would commit his church to a full-throated defense of the controversial preacher was no coincidence. For Fr. Pfleger and Rev. Wright share more than a zip code. In the tightly knit world of Chicago’s South Side, where churches dot nearly every street, Pfleger and Wright are close friends and political allies. And while Pfleger is white, he is in every other sense the mirror image of Rev. Wright. “Father Pfleger is the only black man I know in a white man’s body,” observes one Chicago pastor.
But Pfleger is not simply a white man heading a black congregation. He also is a devout preacher of the reigning catechism of the city’s South Side. It is an ethos of perpetual disenfranchisement that surpasses class barriers, and which holds that America, now as in the era of Jim Crow, is a fundamentally oppressive nation, especially toward its black citizens.
The fact that Pfleger also is a longtime friend of Barack Obama underscores just how omnipresent this ethos was in the formative years of Obama’s political career. And it casts fresh doubt on Obama’s assurance that his roots in Chicago’s black community make him the ideal candidate to chart a new course in racial relations.
St. Sabina advertises its politics on its door, literally: A blue poster on the rectory door proclaims, “We oppose war!” Inside St. Sabina’s cathedral, one finds red, green, and black flags – the colors of black nationalism. In this respect the church, the largest black Catholic church and school in the Chicago archdiocese, is very much a vehicle for the political passions of Fr. Pfleger.
Although the idea of a white preacher as an apostle of Afrocentrism seems unusual, it is very much the product of Chicago’s distinctive history. At the beginning of the last century, the city’s South Side was home to European immigrants from Germany, Poland, Italy, and especially Ireland. In the 1930s, nearly a quarter of the Auburn Gresham, the community where St. Sabina’s is located, were Irish. When the descendants of these residents moved out to the suburbs in the 1960s, they took their churches with them. So dramatic was the demographic shift that, by 2000, Auburn Gresham was 98 percent black. Among the few who church leaders who remained were those most active in the civil-rights movement, who stayed behind to minister to the South Side’s new black residents.
Fr. Pfleger is very much a throwback to that time. One can hear it in the stridency of his sermons, which he delivers with a barking staccato that makes him sound like a prize-fight announcer. One can see it, as well, in the appeals he sometimes writes to his parishioners, which he signs with the now-quaint idiom of a New Left activist (“In the Pursuit of Justice”) and in the fire-and-brimstone zeal that sometimes crosses the line from provocation into outright belligerence. Even some of Fr. Pfleger’s supporters were discomfited when, during a May 2007 anti-gun rally at Chuck’s Gun Shop in Riverdale, Illinois, Pfleger issued the following threat to the store’s owner, John Riggio: “We’re gonna find you and snuff youth out.” Characteristic of his no-holds-barred style, Pfleger remains unapologetic about the incident.
Above all, Fr. Pfleger’s radicalism is evident in the people that he has welcomed at St. Sabina. Prominent among them is Pfleger's friend – and Barack Obama’s spiritual advisor – Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Outside of Chicago’s South Side, Wright, now notorious for his “God damn America” sermon, is an embarrassment and a race-baiting demagogue. But for Pfleger, as for much of Chicago’s South Side, he remains a revered icon.
“The idea that this preaching is divisive is absolutely ridiculous,” Pfleger has said of the controversy around Wright. For most, Wright’s claim that the U.S. government invented the “HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color” is a loathsome calumny. For Pfleger, such racially fraught rhetorical warfare is all part of the job. As he has put it: “The job of pastor is to shepherd his or her congregation, and that requires speaking to your congregants in the language and context they understand.”
Unsurprisingly, Pfleger often invokes similar themes. Echoing Wright, he calls racism “America’s addiction.” Taking a cue from racial huckster Al Sharpton, a former guest at St. Sabina, Pfleger has waged campaigns against everyone from elementary school sports leagues to the Chicago Fire Academy, charging that these institutions are racist.
Efforts like these have won Pfleger high praise from Chicago’s black community. “Father Mike is a man with a message for this messed-up age,” says Sandra Riley, an evangelist at Chicago’s Just For U Ministries. And if that message – of pervasive racism, of unending discrimination, of a national conspiracy to marginalize black Americans – sounds antithetical to the hopeful, post-racial tenor of Obama’s presidential campaign, it is nonetheless the case that it is broadly appreciated by the thousands of parishioners, whether from solidly middle-class Auburn Gresham or from more humble parts like crime-ridden Englewood, who attend the South Side’s countless churches.
It is a reflection of the corrosive political climate on Chicago’s South Side, and of the unlikely alliances that local racial pathologies have helped forge, that Rev. Wright is not even the most extreme of Pfleger’s allies. That dubious distinction better fits Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
Like Wright, Farrakhan has been a frequent guest to St. Sabina. He has preached there on three different occasions. Loathed in the rest of the country, the minister has a friend in Fr. Pfleger. As for complaints that Farrakhan, who once called Hitler “a very Great man,” is a bigot and an anti-Semite, Pfleger will not hear of it.
“Minister Farrakhan is probably one of the most misunderstood and mis-defined leaders of our day,” Pfleger has said. “When you don’t want to deal with someone’s truth, you try to destroy their character or redefine them …His truth causes America to face its racism and its hypocrisy.” That Farrakhan’s “truth” includes a belief in black supremacism to rival the worst Ku Klux Klan propaganda is to Pfleger, and to much of the South Side’s black community, insignificant.
To understand Farrakhan’s prominence here – Rev. Wright is another supporter of the minister, and his Trinity United Church of Christ recently honored him with a lifetime achievement award – it helps to walk around the community.
Just around the corner from St. Sabina’s, on 79th street, stands Salaam Restaurant. An immaculate white structure, it is identifiable by a decorative tower, bearing the Islamic star and crescent, which towers above a neighborhood of faded store-fronts, weather-beaten row houses, “Soul Food” eateries and hair salons. Built for $5 million in 1995, the restaurant is an advertisement for the influence of its famous owner: Louis Farrakhan. (Farrakhan’s daughter, Maria Farrakhan Muhammad, is said to have designed the pricey interior décor.)
That influence is everywhere to be seen. A fading white painted sign on the side of a brick building advertises Farrakhan’s radio show. (“Hear Minister Louis Farrakhan.”) An awning plugs lectures by the minister. To most Americans, Farrakhan is a racist. Here he is a pillar of the community, a man you would not wish to cross.
Fr. Pfleger, in any case, has no wish to do so. On the contrary, he cannot praise enough the man he unabashedly calls his “mentor.” As he told The Trumpet, the newsmagazine of Rev. Wright’s Trinity United Church: “Contrary to those who want to make him anti-white and anti-Semitic, I believe Minister Farrakhan is presently building the umbrella for people of conscience to come together no matter the race or creed. I am honored to call him my brother.” It was surely the first time that the man who seethes at Jewish “bloodsuckers” was hailed as an agent of interfaith harmony.
Pfleger’s political activism and his relationship with figures like Wright and Farrakhan might be of merely parochial interest, a curious glimpse into the troubling ties that run through Chicago’s South Side, were it not for the fact that Fr. Pfleger also is close to the most famous politician to pass through the community.
Pfleger says that he has known Obama for over twenty years. And while Obama worshipped at Wright’s Trinity Church, he is known to have made frequent visits to St. Sabina. Indeed, in one of the promotional videos for St. Sabina‘s, the Democratic candidate can be conspicuously seen in the congregation.
Obama, to be sure, does not seem to share the racial hang-ups of his South Side supporters. In his often-insightful autobiography, Dreams From My Father (1995), he dismisses the black-power movement as a “corrosive force” that denies individual identity in its vision of blacks as constant victims. But if Obama is unwilling to accept all the convictions of the black community, neither is he prepared to sever his ties with those who, like Fr. Pfleger, shamelessly stoke racial tensions and undermine Obama’s sincere efforts to move past the struggles of old.
This reluctance may explain why the Obama campaign seems strangely unembarrassed by the candidate’s association with Fr. Pfleger. On the campaign website, Pfleger is touted as one of the “people of faith for Obama,” and the site features a testimonial from Pfleger likening Obama to Robert F. Kennedy.
Yet, the relationship raises troubling questions about Obama’s judgment. After all, the racially charged, Afro-centric sermons that have forced Obama to distance himself publicly from Rev. Wright are no different than those that can be heard weekly at Pfleger’s St. Sabina’s church. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the two institutions apart. On a recent evening, for instance, St. Sabina’s played host to a sermon by the Reverend Otis Moss, a protégé of Rev. Wrights who is currently the main pastor at his Trinity United Church. (Making clear his debt to Wright, Moss in his sermon likened media criticism of the reverend to the crucifixion of Christ.) Whatever criticism can be leveled at Wright can be directed, with equal justice, at Fr. Pfleger.
And there may be more at issue than the company Obama keeps. For instance, while Obama has promised to follow a new political model, one above the partisan jousting of Washington, his connection to Pfleger suggests that Obama is a practitioner of that oldest brand of partisanship: patronage politics. Thus, the Chicago Tribune has reported that between 1995 and 2001, when Obama was a state senator, Pfleger contributed some $1,500 to the young politician’s campaign. In what seems suspiciously like a quid pro quo, Obama later would pad the state budget with earmarks to favored constituents, steering some $225,000 in grants to St. Sabina. Despite condemning “business-as-usual in Washington,” Obama now stood revealed as a veteran of the traditional approach.
Michael Pfleger is not easily confused with Barack Obama. To Obama’s smooth, calming approach, he is gruff and outraged. Listen more closely, however, and it’s hard not to discern some similarities. When, in one recent sermon, Fr. Pfleger preached to his congregation -- “We can recover!” “We can recover!” -- it was impossible to miss the echo of Obama’s stump slogan, “Yes we can.”
Now, as Obama seeks to distinguish himself from the likes of Rev. Wright, he must show that such echoes are only that. And he must explain, more adequately than he has to date, why voters should bet on him to achieve the racial reconciliation that his close friends and advisors, including Fr. Pfleger, have only served to delay.
To read Part II of "Obama's World," click here.