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Edward W. Brooke, III: First Black U.S. Senator

Updated: Feb 18, 2023

Edward W. Brooke was born in 1919 to a middle-class family in Washington, D.C. His father was a lawyer, so the family’s income and standing in the segregated community shielded him from the harsher racism that permeated other areas of the South. He attended one of the most prestigious high schools for Black students and like his father, attended Howard University. He had little interaction with White America until he joined the army after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

During WWII, Brooke served as a second lieutenant and later as a captain in a segregated infantry regiment. His fluent Italian and light skin enabled him to cross enemy lines and gain intelligence from Italian collaborators. For his service, he earned both a Distinguished Service Award and a Bronze Star. The tour of duty gave him experience as a leader, but also exposed him to the racism in the armed forces. When President Roosevelt signed executive order 9066 authorizing the internment of Japanese American citizens, he started to question his alliance with the Democratic Party.

Brooke returned to the states and earned his law degree from Boston University. Turning down offers from established law firms, he opened his own firm. Shortly after, he ran for a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in both the Democratic and Republican primaries. He won the Republican primary but lost to his Democratic opponent in a landslide. He ran and lost again to the same opponent two years later. Finally in 1960, he won the Republican nomination for Secretary of State, but lost to Democrat Kevin White. White’s campaign had touted the bumper sticker “Vote White” in an obvious play to racist voters.

Despite losing, the closeness of this election elevated Brooke among the state’s Republican leadership. Republican Governor John Volpe appointed Brooke as Boston’s Finance Commissioner, where he investigated corruption within the city. He used his success in the position to win his next election bid in 1962 to be named Attorney General of Massachusetts, becoming the first Black Attorney General of any state in the country.

As Attorney General, Brooke established a reputation for fighting organized crime and working with local police to solve the case of the Boston Strangler. But when the Republican Party nominated conservative Barry Goldwater as its Presidential candidate, Brooke was too offended by Goldwater’s policies and publically broke with the party. His denouncement of Goldwater ironically boosted his standing among moderate Massachusetts Republicans and he soundly won re-election. He then began to focus his energies on rebuilding the Party’s image with an eye toward “bread and butter” issues and racial inequalities.

Though never outspoken on civil rights, the country’s shift in public sentiment started to impact Brooke’s own thoughts. In 1966, the citizens of Massachusetts elected him as the nation’s first Black U.S. Senator. At the time, he told an interviewer at Time Magazine, "I do not intend to be a national leader of the Negro people.” He was vocal in criticizing what he saw as militant civil rights activism. But he found himself often opposed to Presidential candidate Richard Nixon on issues of civil rights and social policies. He started to advocate against discrimination in housing and in partnership with Walter Mondale, he co-authored the 1968 Fair Housing Act. President Johnson signed the Act into law a week after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1969, the “Brooke Amendment” was passed that limited a tenant’s out-of-pocket rent payment to 25% of his income.

Unlike his colleagues in the House of Representatives, Brookes said he never experienced overt racism in the Senate. From his biography in the House archives, he stated:

“In all my years in the Senate, I never encountered an overt act of hostility,” the Massachusetts Senator asserted. Brooke later recalled using the Senate gym and the adjoining facilities without incident. Early in his first term, Brooke went to the Senators’ swimming pool in the Russell Senate Office Building. Southern Democrats and staunch segregationists John Stennis of Mississippi, John McClellan of Arkansas, and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, greeted Brooke and invited him to join them in the pool. “There was no hesitation or ill will that I could see,” Brooke recollected of this positive reception by his Senate colleagues. “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.”

Brooke was considered a liberal Republican who supported civil rights and women’s rights but was also fiscally conservative and not in favor of large government programs. He played a lead role in the enactment of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which enabled married women to establish credit in their own names. He was also a strong advocate for retaining Title IX of the Higher Education Act of 1965, guaranteeing equal education and athletic opportunities to girls. In 1975, he passionately argued in favor of extending the 1965 Voting Rights Act and was a vocal supporter of a national holiday to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. He supported affirmative action and minority business development. He voted in favor of the nomination of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court and famously opposed some of Nixon’s court nominees. He was also the first Republican to call for Nixon’s resignation after the “Saturday Night Massacre” of the Watergate scandal. But he also criticized “coercive protest” and never seemed aligned with activist movements.

A public and acrimonious divorce in 1978 brought scrutiny over Brooke’s finances and disclosures. He was found to have made false statements but none serious enough to warrant criminal charges. The dispute, along with his support for abortion rights, cost him support among Massachusetts’s Catholics. He lost his bid for a third Senate term. He returned to private law practice, then became Chairman of the Boston Bank of Commerce and served on the Board of Directors of Grumman.

In 2002, he was diagnosed with breast cancer and publically disclosed his illness to raise awareness of breast cancer in men. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2004 and died in 2015 at the age of ninety-five.

To learn more about Edward W. Brooke, III, we recommend his autobiography, Bridging the Divide: My Life (2007), and The Wikipedia profile Edward Brooke.

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