By Susie Allen
Photo by M. Spencer Green / The Associated Press
Deval Patrick was just a child when he heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak at a park on the South Side of Chicago. Yet King’s words made a lasting impact on the young boy who would go on to a distinguished legal career and later become the first African American governor of Massachusetts.
“The crowd seemed large to my child’s eyes, and solemn, like church,” Patrick recalled in his 2011 memoir, A Reason to Believe. “Even at that early age, I had already sensed that I did not belong in some parts of town and that there were paths through life that were not for me. Yet with such moral certainty and command, King made me feel not only that I was welcome at the table but that the feast was as much mine as anyone else’s.”
“He was the consummate idealist who made us believe that we could perfect our community and our country.”
He was the consummate idealist who made us believe that we could perfect our community and our country.”
—Gov. Deval Patrick
on Martin Luther King Jr.
On Wednesday, Jan. 15, Patrick will return to the South Side to reflect on that enduring legacy of hope and idealism at the University of Chicago’s annual MLK Celebration. Patrick’s address will be held at 6 p.m. at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel—the site of one of King’s first major speeches in Chicago.
Since 1990, the University has celebrated King’s legacy with keynote addresses by prominent leaders and innovators. Previous speakers include President Barack Obama in 2002 and Harlem Children’s Zone CEO Geoffrey Canada in 2012.
Other events taking place in honor of King include the University Community Service Center’s annual MLK Day of Service on Saturday, Jan. 18 and a seminar and bus tour on King’s legacyhosted by civil rights leader Timuel Black, AM'54.
South Side ties
Patrick was raised by his mother and grandparents in a small apartment near 54th Street and Wabash Avenue on Chicago’s South Side, about one mile from the University of Chicago campus. Patrick’s father, noted jazz saxophonist Laurdine “Pat” Patrick, left the family when Deval was 4.
The Washington Park community in the 1950s and 1960s was economically disadvantaged but socially tight-knit, and residents shared what little they had with those in need. “Whatever was for dinner, it was considered bad form not to offer something to a neighborhood kid who was hungry,” Patrick wrote in A Reason to Believe.
At a dedication ceremony in June 2013 for the Honorary Deval Patrick Avenue on Wabash Avenue, Patrick remembered his neighborhood as a place where “every child was under the jurisdiction of every single adult on the block.”
Although his own family was perennially short of money, Patrick was raised with the belief that he could improve his circumstances. His mother and grandparents encouraged him to explore the world outside the South Side by taking him and his sister Rhonda on road trips to Michigan and Kentucky. They “taught us to imagine a life that was better than or different from our own and then to work for it,” he wrote.
From Washington Park to the governorship
At age 14, Patrick was catapulted into a new life when he won a scholarship to Milton Academy, a prestigious Massachusetts preparatory school. “Milton Academy was not just a different place. It was a different planet,” he recalled. “The language was foreign: summer was used as a verb. My family’s middle-class aspirations had certainly not prepared me for Milton.”
With help from supportive teachers and classmates, he gradually found his place at Milton. Patrick, who was the first member of his family to attend college, went on to graduate from Harvard College and Harvard Law School.
After law school, he was a clerk for a federal judge, served as a staff attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and joined the Boston law firm Hill & Barlow.
President Bill Clinton appointed Patrick Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, the nation’s top civil rights position, in 1994. After leaving the Department of Justice, he held senior executive positions at Texaco and Coca-Cola.
In 2005, Patrick, a relative newcomer in Massachusetts political circles, launched his gubernatorial campaign. His victory in 2006 made him the second elected black governor in the nation’s history. He won reelection in 2010.
Throughout his career, Patrick says he has been guided by the same optimism he heard from King. “We each have a responsibility to the next generation,” he wrote. “Meeting our generational responsibility may involve the grand gesture or a private act of grace or kindness, the historic accomplishment or some more personal form of service to the greater good. But it must be met. And it relies entirely on American idealism.”
Patrick’s speech at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel (5850 S. Woodlawn Ave.) is free and open to the public. Seating is limited and available on a first-come basis. The speech also will be webcast on UChicago Live.
Originally published on January 13, 2014.