First popularly elected black senator Brooke passes, but impact remains

Sen. Edward W. Brooke receives Presidential Medal of Freedom 2004

Featured Photo: Sen. Edward W. Brooke received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from fellow Republican George W. Bush in 2004. (Photo from White House/Bush Administration via Wikipedia)

Most media have given some attention to the passing of a senator whose name is etched in scholarly books and public records. Yet Sen. Edward W. Brooke would likely be an unfamiliar name to many Americans. Brooke was a senator with a populist approach to government based on a philosophy of helping the little man. Had it not been for Brooke and Republican senator Bill Brock, the ability of women to establish credit in our own names would likely have been delayed. 

Brooke co-sponsored and Brock sponsored S. 3492, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, in 1974. The act prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex or marital status in granting credit.

Sen. Edward W. Brooke

Sen. Edward W. Brooke’s official congressional portrait. (Library of Congress)

Brooke was a trailblazer on the forefront of civil rights, but he chose to refrain from militancy. His efforts in the Senate weren’t just aimed at helping black people—he hoped to make a difference in the lives of all those he represented. Although his election to the Senate was historic, he was keenly aware most of his constituents in Massachusetts were primarily white Catholic Democrats.

Brooke’s efforts also led to placing limits on federally subsidized housing rent, and he served on the Senate Appropriations Committee where his membership signified his importance within the then-deliberative body. Ultimately, a scandal tied to divorce cost him his Senate position. It’s possible one reason he was targeted politically was because another powerful politician wanted the Senate seat as a precursor to a presidential run.

In June, 2004 President George W. Bush (R) presented Brooke with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Brooke received other prestigious awards and he had also served honorably in the US Army (infantry), seeing combat during World War II.

Fairness in housing and credit and equal opportunities in education for females were part of his platform. Brooke also advocated for access to abortion at a time when only the wealthy or politically connected could usually obtain one safely. Sexual rights were beginning to draw populist attention, and in Brooke’s time, there were heated debates about everything from what we now call reproductive rights to the Equal Rights Amendment.

The political slant of leaders like Brooke can only be properly understood, however, in the context of the times. In an article about Sen. Brooke at The Federalist Papers, Phil Hall wrote:

“But what many would-be contemporary scholars fail to recall was that the Republican Party of the 1960s was in the political forefront of the Civil Rights Era, both on a federal and state level. Indeed, the vote breakdown for the 1964 Civil Rights Act showed an overwhelming support among Republicans, while the so-called Southern Democrats were overwhelmingly opposed to expanding political and economic opportunities to their African American constituents.

Granted, the Republican Party of the 1960s was wide enough able to accommodate a varied spectrum of political ideologies, stretching from left to right. The liberal branch of the party, to which Brooke belonged, played a crucial role during this period of presenting greater opportunities for advancement of the nation’s disenfranchised communities at both federal and local levels.”

In those days, political disagreements between liberals and conservatives within both parties were not uncommon.

Brooke lost his bid for reelection to the Senate in 1978 to Democrat Paul Tsongas who attempted to do what President Barack Obama did in 2008—make the leap from the Senate to the Oval Office. Tsongas failed.

Brooke’s political career was marked in the popular World Book Encyclopedia Year Book in 1966 (print). A caption beneath his photo reads:

“Edward W. Brooke typifies the new politics of New England. Brooke, a Republican and a Negro, defied the Democratic tide in 1964 and was re-elected Attorney General of Massachusetts.” [pg. 207]

That same year Brooke had withheld endorsement of Barry Goldwater for president, eventually telling media, “You can’t say the Negro left the Republican Party; the Negro feels he was evicted from the Republican Party.” While the statement may have elements of truth, Brooke overlooked the impact of the nation’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, a Democrat.

JFK and his successor Lyndon B. Johnson recognized the political potential in moving blacks into their party, and it was purely for political reasons the two reversed a number of their anti-civil rights positions prior to taking the presidency. Political parties and platforms have not been static, responding to opportunities within the electorate based on demographics and voting blocs.

Brooke died at his home of natural causes in Coral Gables, Florida on Jan. 3. He was 95 years old. Brooke was the first black senator elected by the people. Other blacks had become senators but they did so when state legislative bodies appointed senators.

In an ironic note, the Associated Press apparently asked now Sec. of State John Kerry (D) for comments about Brooke. Kerry responded that Brooke had “remarkable political courage.”

What Kerry didn’t tell the AP and what the AP apparently didn’t realize was that as a young prosecutor, Kerry led the investigation into Brooke that resulted in the loss of his seat. Eventually the investigation was dropped.

Featured Photo: Sen. Edward W. Brooke received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from fellow Republican George W. Bush in 2004. (Photo from White House/Bush Administration via Wikipedia)

(Filed by Kay B. Day/Jan. 6, 2015)

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About Kay Day

Kay B. Day is a freelance writer who has published in national and international magazines and websites. The author of 3 books, her work is anthologized in textbooks and collections. She has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. Day is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Authors Guild.

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