St. Sabina community deplores ‘watered-down’ version of King’s legacy

By Andersen Xia & Thomas Yau

A day before the slain civil rights leader’s birthday, parishioners accuse the “establishment” of giving the public a watered-down version of the non-violence movement, claiming vestiges of racism continue to pervade American society.

As St. Sabina Church on Chicago’s South Side celebrated the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Sunday, two messages echoed in the service: the rejection of the sanitization of King’s messages and the uphill battle for racism is far from over.



“Dr. King is not the homogenized, commodified pin cushion that he sold to us as,” said actor Harry Lennix, a Chicago native who was invited by the Rev. Michael Pfleger to speak to the congregation.

Lennix criticized the “establishment” of giving the public a watered-down version of King. “We’ve been doped into status quo-loving, forcing and bringing pitchmen who have fooled us into thinking Dr. King’s non-violence was the goal in itself,” he said.

Actor Harry Lennix speaks at St. Sabina Church.
Actor Harry Lennix, who grow up on the South Side of Chicago, discusses Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy Sunday at St. Sabina Church in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. (Thomas Yau/Medill)

Lennix’s opinion came at a time when racial tensions in the U.S. reached a critical point amid the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York. On Twitter, hundreds of users tweeted with the hashtag “#reclaimMLK,” a campaign that “resist efforts to reduce a long history marred with the blood of countless women and men into iconic images of men in suits behind pulpits,” according to the website of Ferguson Action, a civil rights organization.

A parishioner dances Sunday at a mass at St. Sabina Church
A parishioner dances Sunday at a mass at St. Sabina Church, where church members said racism evolved and became more subtle and institutionalized since Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s era. (Thomas Yau/Medill )

Parishioners who attended the service said that although overt racial segregation such as “white only” signs during King’s time had disappeared, racism evolved and became more subtle and institutionalized.

“When it came to looking for housing, the realtors knew that there are certain lines that they called redlining….You don’t show anybody of color these houses in this area,” parishioner Eric Harwell said.

“I think things happening in society continue to remind us of racism being very present,” said Christian Plummer, a law student of Northwestern University. “The people of color who are in postgraduate studies is very low, in my incoming class there are only five African-Americans in a class of over 250.”

Pfleger said racism is the root of a lot of social problems and they will not be solved until the society “dismantled” racism.

“Don’t look back and talk about what he [King] did, look at the mirror and say what you’re doing…. And if we’re not doing what he called us to do, then guess what? We continue to murder Dr. King.” Pfleger said.