BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick on Wednesday reflected on Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech delivered 50 years ago today on the National Mall, drawing both inspiration from King’s message and modern links to King’s words that he said hold meaning still for civic leaders.
Patrick, the state’s first and the country’s only black governor, said he was 7 years old when King led the March on Washington and delivered his famous speech. He said he thinks he watched the speech on his grandmother’s old black-and-white television, and recalled going to hear King speak around that time in a park on the South Side of Chicago.
“I don’t remember a single word he said, but I remember what it felt like. I remember that feeling of being connected to all those people in that park, people like me of limited means but limitless hope,” Patrick told reporters at the Old South Meeting House before he pulled a rope to ring the meeting house bell for 15 seconds at 3 p.m. to commemorate the speech.
Patrick planned to take part as well in the Landmark Orchestra’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington Wednesday night at the Hatch Shell on the Charles River Esplanade.
Patrick, who also appeared on CNN Wednesday afternoon to discuss the anniversary, drew similarities between the time of the civil rights demonstration — when the murder of a black teenager went unpunished and Freedom Riders faced fierce resistance in trying to register black people to vote — to the present day.
He referenced the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that he said has led to “voter suppression laws” in North Carolina and Texas.
“That fact is not a source of discouragement for me,” Patrick said. “It’s a reminder. It’s a reminder of the truth of, I think it was Thomas Jefferson who said that constant vigilance or eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. So I think the reason we should commemorate today is not just because of that extraordinary speech, and it was extraordinary, but because it pricks our conscious today just as it did 50 years ago to look forward and think about what we must do to commit to those ideals that make this country so extraordinary and what we must do in our time to make sure those ideals and opportunity are passed on to another generation.”
Meeting with the press for the first time in nearly a month, much of the governor’s half-hour discussion with the media centered around the anniversary of the event, and Patrick’s views on race as the state’s first black governor.
Though he said he shares the desire of many Americans to move on from debates about race, Patrick said sometimes that comes at the expense of discussing race “for what it is.”
“Putting aside race doesn’t mean ignoring race. If you ignore race, you don’t see me. And race is a part of, being a black man is part of who I am. The point is it’s not all of who and what I am, and the suppositions that sometimes go in people’s minds with being a black man don’t all apply to me and aren’t the sum of who I am,” Patrick said.
While he said there has been progress in 50 years, he does not believe yet that American society has moved into a “post-racial” sphere where race no longer factors in American politics or policy.
“We have made extraordinary progress in the 50 years since that speech, and there are many, many examples of that. Some of you and others will point to me and to President Obama as a couple of those examples, and that’s absolutely undeniable, a thing to behold; a thing to remark upon, when you consider that 50 years is not that long,” Patrick said.
The governor, who dined this month on Martha’s Vineyard with the president and friends, said the country crossed a “huge divide” when it elected Obama the first African-American president.
“But we have work to do and we have work to do around issues that are expressly racial and issues that have their roots in historic discrimination and poverty is one of them,” he said.