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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Black History Highlight

Black History Highlight

There have only been six African American people to ever hold a Senate Seat. Only four have been elected by popular vote. Shocking, right? Let’s look at this.

Two senators, Hiram Rhodes Revels, and Blanche Bruce–both Republicans from Mississippi–held seats during the Reconstruction period in the 1870s. But it wasn’t until 1966 that Edward Brooke became the first African American to be elected by popular vote to the Senate. And for most of the 20th century, he was the only senator to have been elected by popular vote–it wasn’t until 1993 that Carol Moseley-Braun won a seat, followed by now-President Barack Obama in 2005, and then Roland Burris in 2009. But the first senator to be elected by popular vote, Edmund Brooke, was a senator who not only broke down walls of inequality and racism within politics, but who saw beyond color and party lines, and actually made a difference as a senator.

Edward William Brooke III was born in Washington DC in 1919. He graduated from Howard University, spent five years as an officer in the 366th Infantry Regiment, and then graduated from Boston University School of Law in 1948. In 1949, he unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the House of Representatives, and then tried for office twice more, but lost both times. He became Attorney General of Massachusetts in 1962, and was reelected in 1964 before deciding to run for Senate.

A moderate Republican, Brooke developed the “Wednesday Club” for progressive Republicans to meet and strategize over lunch. A progressive Republican indeed, he reached across party lines to connect with senators and work toward shared goals. While in senate, he fought to guarantee equal education opportunities for girls and women, was pro-choice, and co-authored the 1968 Fair Housing Act with Walter Mondale. When he found that it was not being enforced very strongly, he became the driving force behind what became known as the Brooke Amendment, which limits the percentage very-low income renters need to pay out-of-pocket on rent.

Due to his vocal support of a woman’s right to get an abortion, Massachusetts’ state bishops spoke out against him, which weakened his support among Catholics. He lost in a reelection bid in 1978 to Paul Tsongas. After leaving the Senate, he became a practicing lawyer in Washington, DC, and also chaired the board of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Brooke received both the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal, the two highest honors that can be bestowed upon a civilian. Upon accepting the Congressional Gold Medal in the fall of 2009, he chided the current Senate members for not working together when there were so many more serious issues to think about, and advocated for voting rights for the delegate from the District of Columbia.

Edward Brooke will not be known simply as the first African American senator elected by popular vote. This was a man who fought hard for minorities, the disenfranchised, and the poor, and spent his life helping people to look beyond labels. For that, and for the many contributions he made both as a senator and advocate, he cannot soon be forgotten.