The first black senator in American history was Mississippi’s Hiram Revels. However, he did not serve that long and was the first of the first generation of black elected officials. Edward W. Brooke III (1919-2015) was the first black senator to be elected by popular vote and the first of the second generation, which was primarily liberal and Democratic.
Brooke grew up in Washington D.C. Although it was a segregated environment, he didn’t experience much of the Deep South variety of racism. Although initially a supporter of FDR, his experiences with segregation and racism in the U.S. Army during World War II as well as Japanese-American internment gave him second thoughts. Although FDR had attracted the majority of the black vote through his New Deal programs, the Southern wing remained a sore spot for black voters and allowed for some significant remaining GOP support until 1964. World War II had also been instructive for Brooke that the color line need not exist since as a soldier fluent in Italian in Italy he met and married a local woman without issue. During World War II, despite lacking formal legal training, he became an effective legal defender for black soldiers, and he ultimately earned a law degree from Boston University. Instead of accepting numerous offers from law firms, Brooke formed his own law firm and gained an interest in state politics. In 1950, he ran for the State House of Representatives and sought both the Democratic and Republican nominations. He won the Republican nomination and this started his affiliation with the Republican Party. Although Brooke didn’t win this race and didn’t win the next few races, his profile did rise in an increasingly Democratic state.
In 1960, Brooke ran for but lost the Secretary of State race to Kevin White, future mayor of Boston, who distributed bumper stickers with the slogan “VOTE WHITE”. However, John Volpe, a Republican, was elected governor. Governor Volpe appointed him to chair the Finance Commission of Boston, where he revitalized the commission and got it back to its original purpose: exposing numerous financial irregularities and corruption in the Democratically controlled city. Brooke’s stint as chairman built up momentum for his run for attorney general in 1962, which he won despite Governor Volpe losing reelection that year.
Pursuing the Boston Strangler
After his election as attorney general, Brooke coordinated the statewide police investigation of 13 murders of the “Boston Strangler”, which occurred between June 14, 1962, and January 4, 1964, in Boston and several other cities. He did err when he allowed parapsychologist Peter Hurkos to use extrasensory perception to identify the killer in detail…which turned out completely wrong (TIME, 8). Although Albert DeSalvo was apprehended as the “Boston Strangler” and was proven by DNA evidence to have committed at least one of the murders, whether he committed all the murders or not remains a subject of controversy.
Brooke and the 1964 Election
In 1964, Republican Party moderates and liberals faced a difficult situation in the party’s nomination of Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona for president, but Brooke navigated the situation effectively by condemning the nomination. He stated on the matter of black support collapsing for the Republican ticket, “You can’t say the Negro left the Republican Party; the Negro feels he was evicted from the Republican Party” (Wingfield & Pratt). He won reelection that year.
In 1966, popular longtime senator Leverett Saltonstall was calling it quits. Saltonstall’s ability to win reelection statewide at this point was due more to legacy and personal popularity than his voting record in an increasingly Democratic state. Brooke ran for the Senate, labeling himself as a “creative Republican”. Although Senator Ted Kennedy campaigned for his opponent, Endicott Peabody, Brooke was endorsed by the departing incumbent, Leverett Saltonstall, and he was too popular to be overcome. Upon his entrance into the Senate, he got a standing ovation. Indeed, his reception was far better than one might expect, and he was treated as all the other senators were. A most illuminating incident occurred when Brooke was going to the Senate swimming pool. In the pool were Senators John C. Stennis (D-Miss.), John McClellan (D-Ark.), and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). These men had all signed the Southern Manifesto and had voted against every civil rights measure of the 1950s and 1960s, yet they were inviting him to join them. Brooke stated on this event, “There was no hesitation or ill will that I could see. Yet these were men who consistently voted against legislation that would have provided equal opportunity to others of my race. I felt that if a senator truly believed in racial separatism, I could live with that, but it was increasingly evident that some members of the Senate played on bigotry purely for political gain” (U.S. House).
Although Brooke represented the state of Massachusetts, he symbolically represented black people in all fifty states. He also understood that being successful in the Senate would require him not to be a “black senator” rather a senator who happens to be black. A Time Magazine (1967) article described Brooke’s approach on race thusly, “…[he] has never rallied his race to challenge segregation barriers with the inspirational fervor of a Martin Luther King. Unlike Thurgood Marshall, Roy Wilkins or Philip Randolph, he has not been a standard-bearer in the civil rights movement. He has made none of the volatile public breakthroughs to equality of a Jackie Robinson or a James Meredith. He has triggered none of the frustrated fury of a Stokely Carmichael, written none of the rancorous tracts of a James Baldwin or a LeRoi Jones, drawn none of the huzzahs of a Louis Armstrong or a Joe Louis, a Willie Mays or a Rafer Johnson. He has never sought or wanted to be a symbol of negritude. There have always been two ways for members of minorities to rise: through purely individual achievement and through involvement in group action. But in the U.S., there is room for both types and, ultimately, each reinforces the other” (1).
Brooke saw himself as a figure who could bring people together. He said, “I’ve never tried to run away from my race. I was born a black man. You know that in your bones as soon as you are able to understand this country…My approach to life about race is, I don’t see the difference between black people and white people. I wanted to go to Washington to bring people together who had never been together before. I wanted to break down the barriers between races” (Jacobs). In 1967, he was tapped by President Johnson to serve on the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes of urban riots and the following year he co-sponsored with Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) the Fair Housing Act of 1968, prohibiting racial discrimination in housing. In sponsoring this legislation, Brooke sought to manage expectations, stating, “Fair housing does not promise an end to the ghetto. It promises only to demonstrate that the ghetto is not an immutable institution in America” (U.S. House). Brooke was also early to call for an MLK Holiday, doing so shortly after his assassination in 1968.
Although initially a supporter of the Vietnam War, by the Nixon Administration he had joined the doves, voting for the Cooper-Church Amendment ending US military presence in Cambodia and the McGovern-Hatfield “End the War” Amendment in 1970 which would have had all troops withdrawn from Vietnam by the end of 1971. Brooke’s overall record was decidedly liberal; his scores from conservative interest group Americans for Constitutional Action ranged from 0% in 1975 to 40% in 1968. Brooke was critical of aspects of LBJ’s execution of anti-poverty programs but not the fundamental concepts themselves, stating that Johnson’s approach was akin to “aspirin – it relieves the pain, but it doesn’t cure” and held that “If you give a man a handout, you establish a chain of dependence and lack of self-respect that won’t be broken easily” (Time). During the Nixon Administration, Brooke fought to maintain and expand anti-poverty programs. In 1969, he won passage of an amendment that prohibited charging rent in public housing above 25% of family income (Wingfield & Pratt). Although Brooke’s voting record was unwaveringly favorable to civil rights legislation, busing and affirmative action, and he voted against the Supreme Court nominations of Haynsworth, Carswell, and Rehnquist, he still had differences with civil rights groups for not adopting a more militant approach. As attorney general, he had refused to support civil rights activists in a call for a walkout of black students in protest of de facto segregation (TIME, 8). Brooke was simultaneously critical of Governor Lester Maddox of Georgia and Stokely Carmichael and rejected the Black Panthers. In 1971, he refused to join the Congressional Black Caucus in sitting out of the State of the Union in protest of Nixon’s refusal to meet with them.
Brooke’s views on social issues were generally quite liberal; in 1974 he opposed legislation to reinstate the death penalty and he was a leading opponent of the Hyde Amendment blocking Medicaid funding for abortion. He was also a leading opponent of anti-busing measures and a strong supporter of Title IX by opposing efforts to allow schools to maintain sex segregation for PE classes.
When Brooke disagreed with liberals it was usually on opposing defense cuts although he had occasional agreements with conservatives on domestic government matters; in 1971 he voted against more funding for the Appalachian Regional Development Program and in 1974 he voted to end presidential monitoring over the economy through price controls. Despite his vote against presidential monitoring, Brooke proved a foe of efforts to deregulate oil prices. Although he voted for the Panama Canal Treaties, he was a bit hesitant on the matter as he also voted for numerous reservations.
Personal Difficulties and Defeat
In 1976, Brooke filed for divorce. He and his wife had been separated for many years, and he himself said that “We’ve been distant for 17 years” (People). During this time, he was going out with other women, most notably journalist Barbara Walters, who he would have a relationship with for years. The divorce was acrimonious, with his wife Remigia filing a countersuit claiming “cruel and abusive treatment” from him, namely her claiming that he didn’t give her enough of an allowance including for medicine when undergoing cancer treatment, with Brooke himself claiming that he had given her enough and alleging the same treatment from her (People). She seemed to expect that Brooke was occupied with politics and would return to her once he was done. Although he would have probably survived the nasty divorce alone, matters got worse when in May 1978 the Senate Ethics Committee launched an investigation into an accusation that he had committed perjury by lying about the source of a personal loan in the divorce proceeding. Prosecutor and future senator and presidential candidate John Kerry of Middlesex County also launched an investigation. Although Brooke was not charged with a crime as his misrepresentations were not found to have had an impact on the outcome, this damaged him. He also faced a tough challenge in the primary from conservative broadcaster Avi Nelson, and singled out in particular for criticism was his stance on abortion in a Catholic state. Despite grumblings about Brooke and abortion, his opponent, Democratic Congressman Paul Tsongas, was also pro-choice and won the election by over 10 points. This was the end of his career in elected office, and it haunted him for the rest of his life, saying later, “Why did it happen? I don’t know. I’ve asked my God that many times. Why, why, why, dear God?” (Jacobs)
In 1979, Brooke was tapped to be the chairman of the national Low-Income Housing Commission and President Reagan put him on the President’s Commission on Housing. Given this role he was later accused as a lobbyist of using his former position to win low-income housing contracts for his client and having special access to and influence over Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Samuel Pierce (Martin). This controversy prompted his retirement from politics for good in 1988.
Brooke received a number of honors late in his life. In 2000, a new Boston courthouse was named after him, in 2002 professor Molefi Kete Asante listed Brooke in his book,100 Greatest African Americans. Two years later, President George W. Bush awarded Brooke the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2009 he was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal. Brooke’s final presidential endorsement was for Barack Obama in 2008. At the time of his death on January 3, 2015, he had been the oldest living former senator.
After Years Apart, Senator Brooke and His Italian Wife File for Divorce – and Tempers Erupt. (1976, August 16). People.
Brooke, Edward William, III. U.S. House of Representatives.
An Individual Who Happens to be a Negro. (1967, February 17). Time Magazine.
Jacobs, S. (2003, June 10). The unfinished chapter. The Boston Globe.
Martin, D. (2015, January 4). Edward W. Brooke, III, 95, Senate Pioneer, Is Dead. The New York Times.
Wingfield, S. & Pratt, M. (2015, January 3). Edward Brooke, 1st black elected US senator, dies. Associated Press.