President Barack Obama and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick listen as Orchard Gardens Elementary School students recite Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the White House on Feb. 28, 2012. In his new e-book ‘Faith in the Dream’ Patrick praises the academic turnaround at the school. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
In the mid 1960s, when he was about 10 years old and living in Chicago, Deval Patrick went with one of his relatives to hear Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak.
By then, King — at the height of his power as the undisputed leader of the Civil Rights Movement —had left the sweltering southern environs of Selma and Birmingham, moving his human rights campaign north into a Chicago slum and temporarily settling into a rundown tenement house on the city’s South Side.
King’s new civil rights mission was to expose the nation to conditions faced by the black urban underclass, which was living in abject poverty, far from the comforting shoals of material wealth, access to a sound education, and middle-class standard housing — all staples of the American Dream.
King had recently been triumphant in guiding the nation toward the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signature legislation which would serve as the fulcrum for unprecedented civic and electoral integration in American society for decades to come.
The prepubescent Patrick doesn’t recall precisely what King said at the rally that day, but remembers being moved by the preacher’s passionate call for justice for the underclass. It was an impression that resonated so deeply into Patrick’s boyhood consciousness, that four decades later he reacts to the experience with moving conviction and credits King for shaping aspects of his sense of social equality.
“Faith in the Dream,” a slim 100 page e-book released in May, is a tribute to Dr. King’s brand of dynamic liberalism. The book is a clarion call for a more robust civic life — a statement of belief in how governmental activism can lift the social and economic conditions of all Americans, especially the poor and middle class.
Amplifying multiple themes faintly introduced in his first book, “A Reason to Believe,” here Patrick offers a boldly- stated political philosophy, an interpretation of what constitutes citizenship in 21st century America.
In writing about the troubles that burden our national politics—principally the sharp polarization between the left and right—Patrick displays his talents as a keen observer of our civic culture.
A second-term governor and political confidant of President Obama, Patrick claims he is only an “amateur” in the practice of politics, but what he delivers in this book is a seasoned and highly complex overview of what ails our body politic, a critique of our national civic disposition.
Along the way, he also offers numerous recommendations on how the country can return to political normalcy where fair deliberation, earnest debate, and bipartisan political compromise rule the day.
But what defines this book mostly is the high arc of its obsessively optimistic tone and scope. It imitates the confidence of FDR and JFK’s language of the New Frontier and generational challenge. It also channels the hope-and-change message that fueled Obama’s historic election four years ago. It does so with unabashed left-of-center enthusiasm, a progressive-minded belief in government as a proxy for resolving social and economic outcomes.
At the heart of Patrick’s book is the unflappable conviction that Americans should return to lost democratic values and orthodoxy:
“The American Dream is more than the stuff of legend or folklore or political rhetoric. It defines America. Ours is the only nation in human history not organized around a common language or culture or religion. Our country is organized around the civic values of equality, opportunity, and fair play, values we have defined over time and through struggle. The freedom we cherish and celebrate — to pursue our dreams without the constraints of background and class or overbearing authority — is impossible without these three values.”
In some ways, the book is, as Patrick calls it in his acknowledgements, a “hoary political pamphlet,” written expressly as a literary call to civic action.
It seeks to join an honored American tradition of rousing public attention to grand national themes in similar ways as Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” or William Lloyd Garrison’s “No Union With Slave Holders.”
Patrick boldly confesses he is a liberal Democrat, yet he claims his book is a non-partisan examination of our political culture in which he trumpets only the inherent virtues of democracy and grassroots engagement as an anecdote to our politically anemic culture. But it is hard to ignore the partisan ring, especially with the e-book published as Patrick embarks on a protracted season of political barnstorming on behalf of Obama’s reelection campaign.
The book is clearly a platform that lets Patrick state his full-throated support for policies that position him left of the center of American politics and as an attractive political surrogate for Obama.
He is for increasing taxes as general practice because they “are the price of civilization. They pay for the schools, public safety, the military, transportation infrastructure, services for the most destitute and the desperate.”
He believes in big government that provides “superior public services.” And he argues that the rich should pay for it as a way of addressing the “countless needs [that] go unmet in America, needs that lie outside of what anyone expects the private sector or private individuals to meet.”
At the same time, Patrick offers skepticism about the role of government in a host of issues. He contends, for instance, that on issues of abortion, gay marriage, or religious preference, the state should “maintain a respectful distance” not because “they are politically nettlesome, but because they are deeply personal and government rarely get such issues right.”
Patrick projects his cheery brand of the American Dream through the story of the turnaround of the Orchard Gardens School in the Roxbury section of Boston. Patrick gushes about how Orchard Gardens, once a bastion of neglect and abysmal student achievement, has recorded dramatic gains under a visionary new principal. So proud is he of the school that he took some of its students to the White House this year to perform before the president.
The son of a renowned jazz musician, Patrick’s prose is like that of the art form itself: often lyrical, dulcet, and ever mindful of the bluesy, unsettling misfortunes that can attend the lives of his fellow citizens. In the pages of this book, he bares an unfiltered sympathy for the poor, the unemployed, and the sick.
Yet at times he hits discordant notes, such as when he complains of being unfairly harassed by a protester at the Boston Occupy Movement site last year as a “1 percenter.” Well, having amassed significant wealth while working at large American corporations such as Coca-Cola and Texaco, and serving on the board of Ameriquest, the accusation may happen to ring true. Patrick comes off as shallow and dismissive in rebuffing the protester.
Maybe the plutocrat charge rings untrue to Patrick because he is always mindful of his blackness and the status of inferiority that designation has connoted for most of the nation’s history. Perhaps he feels he will never find himself fully in the place of privilege and ongoing ease as his white fellow elites.
With all this said, a discomforting elephant sits in the room, challenging Patrick’s belief in the American Dream. While his e-book is generally high-minded about what is possible in America, its absence of introspection on how Patrick arrived at his place of comfort and success deserves scrutiny. One wonders, for instance, why Patrick is so slow to critically examine how he eventually arrived at his wealth and high position while so many others also born to his class have not.
Certainly hard work and intelligence played an enormous role in his financial and political fortune. Most would praise Patrick for embracing the values of opportunity, fair play, and equality he steadfastly espouses throughout this book.
But to read his personal and professional narrative closely, Patrick is also clearly a beneficiary of opportunities and advantages that many born to his station in life will never partake, mainly because of persistent structural social and political inequality. In this narrow context, “Faith in the Dream” may equally highlight the values of “opportunity, equality and fair play” that Patrick believes are accessible to all — and key to gaining access to the middle class — as well as the improbable opportunities he and a few others of his post-civil rights generation have been allotted by chance and circumstance.
Perhaps Patrick’s personal good fortune and success are the exception to the rule. Maybe the civic values he espouses are not the actual root of individual upward mobility and integration into a cornucopia of American material comforts, but rather the cosmetic trinkets attained by the few of his race and class by sheer chance. The sobering aspect of Patrick’s book may well be that he has bought into a version of a dream that might work for a fortuitous few but which is not at all supported by the current American reality.
Patrick’s sunny civic disposition and confidence that the nation can be redirected to grander days displays just how much he has been imbued with a belief that, in America, all things are possible – even for poor children like him who grow up in such unforgiving places as the South Side of Chicago, Watts, or North Philadelphia.
Patrick, brilliant, incredibly gifted and destined, it seems, for a greater future in public or private life, may indeed be living the American Dream that he witnessed Dr. King so passionately pressing for those many years ago. But because he is one to whom much has been given, one hopes to see him tirelessly work to find ways to put that dream in the reach of all who long for its spoils.
Kevin C. Peterson is founder of the New Democracy Coalition, a Boston-based organization that focuses on civic policy, civic literacy and electoral justice. This article first appeared in Commonwealth Magazine.