Despite the recent election of President Barack Obama, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said Friday that blacks should not abandon the fight for social justice.
In front of an audience of nearly 200 in the Pierson College dining hall, Patrick encouraged the celebration of recent advances, specifically black representation in positions of power. But Patrick, speaking at the annual Black History Month dinner co-hosted by Pierson College and the Afro-American Cultural Center, also cautioned that there is much progress yet to be made in attaining racial equality.
“The quest for social justice is never static, never complete,” he said. “Remember all those poor souls abandoned on rooftops after Hurricane Katrina. I ask you to consider whether they were abandoned before that storm.”
A Harvard alumnus, Patrick is the second African-American to be elected governor in the history of the United States. In 1994, he was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the nation’s top civil rights post — Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division— where he worked on a wide range of issues including hate crimes and employment discrimination.
In his address, Patrick pointed to the election of black President Barack Obama as a mark of the “extraordinary” advances of black people in recent times.
While he expressed his own joy at hearing about the results of the election, Patrick said he was frustrated at the time with reporters who asked him if he was proud of Obama’s achievement, explaining that he would have preferred to reflect on the occasion alone.
“Sometimes solemn silence is the most fitting tribute,” Patrick explained.
At the same time, Patrick said, the battle for racial equality is far from over.
Patrick illustrated this by reading a piece of hate mail that he had recently received. The letter, signed, “a white person, you bastards,” described the governor’s wife as “freckle-faced” and insulted his daughter, who in July 2008 publicly announced that she was a lesbian. When Patrick told audience members that the letter included a return address, they broke out into laughter.
“Our journey is still going,” the governor reminded the audience.
Patrick then fielded questions from the audience about his universal health-care policies, his experience running for office and the year he spent after graduating from Harvard working on a United Nations youth training project in Darfur.
Kayla Vinson ’11 said she liked what the governor had to say about education, but added that she wished Patrick had been more specific when he said education reforms must consider “the whole child – not just the statistics.”
“I would’ve liked to hear a little more about the power of education to transform the American dream into the American rhetoric,” Vinson said.
Rodney Reynolds ’10 said he appreciated the governor’s willingness to answer questions and to engage critically in thought.
“He is a progressive, forward thinker who has created a model for politics we should continue to follow,” said Reynolds.
For Kyle Brooks ’05 GRD ’08, Patrick is an inspiration.
“Deval Patrick is a great example of new leaders who are willing to be bold and challenge the status quo, ” said Brooks, who attended the dinner as a member of Set Apart, a black male a cappella group that performed before Patrick spoke. “He challenges me to be as bold in my pursuits.”
Patrick served as Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary in The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta from 2000 to 2004.