Edward Brooke was the first African-American to be elected to the Senate since Reconstruction, when, 85 years earlier, Mississippi’s Blanche Bruce would not be reappointed to his Senate seat. The year was 1966 and the place was Massachusetts and Brooke captured the seat of retiring Senator Leverett Saltonstall in an electorate that was just 3% black. That wasn’t the remarkable thing. What was remarkable was that race encompassed little, if any role at a time when civil rights was a dominant issue.
While the Senate race lacked any kind of racial acrimony, Brooke’s early life did not. He grew up in Washington DC but eventually moved to a primarily white neighborhood. His relations with the white community were harmonious, and Brooke graduated from Howard University. But he served in the Army during World War II and his unit was segregated. Brooke said “in the army, I felt racial discrimination more keenly than ever before. I could not ignore that our government’s policy endorsed blatant inequalities.”
When he returned home, he found himself unable to get a job by any of Boston’s big law firms. So he sought to turn lemons into lemonade.
The Black Individualist of the Republican Party quoted Black Biography as two of Brooke’s Army buddies “they wanted Brooke to run for the office to improve living conditions for the great masses of blacks who lived in Roxbury, Massachusetts.” As to why he joined the GOP: “My parents were Republicans, and I had always admired the party of Lincoln and the Republican virtues of duty and self-help.”
Brooke sought a State Senate seat in 1950 using “cross filing,” where a candidate for office can submit his name in both party primaries. Brooke did win on the Republican line, but as expected, not the Democratic. He narrowly lost the election. He lost again in a bid for Secretary of State in 1960 (Massachusetts’ favorite son JFK was on the ticket), but only by 12,000 votes. But by becoming the first African-American in Massachusetts to win a nomination for a statewide office, his stock was soaring. And the people who counted took note. He rebounded by being tapped by the Governor for a major banking post.
Eventually, though, Brooke could not resist the office bug and this time, he was successful. It was for Massachusetts Attorney General. Brooke stared down Elliot Richardson in the primary, who entered the convention a heavy favorite. But Brooke outmaneuvered him and captured the nod. His win in the fall was so huge that JFK called it, “the biggest news in the country,” which meant it apparently exceeded his brother Teddy winning a Senate seat that same day.
In office, he created a Boston Strangler Task Force and championed desegregation, though differed with the state NAACP in their call for boycotts of schools. But it was Brooke’s crusade against local corruption that thrust him into the spotlight, and his capabilities were acknowledged as far-reaching.
In 1964, Brooke shunned Goldwater. “To me,” he explained, “theirs was a pseudoconservatism, sharply at odds with our party’s honored past. Their racial views would have appalled Abraham Lincoln. Their contempt for our environment would have disgusted Theodore Roosevelt. Their blind hatred of every federal program was a slap at every veteran who had used the GI Bill to go to college or buy a house.”
Then came the Senate race. Brooke was viewed as a sure-loser to outgoing Governor Endicott Peabody. But he used his forceful speaking ability and strong personal skills to his advantage, and that meant a win. But his 61% margin (exceeding 400,000 votes) was eyebrow raising. His slogan was “Ed Brooke of Massachusetts–Integrity and Independence in the U.S. Senate.”
During the campaign, Brooke had made it clear he wasn’t “running as a Negro. I never have. I’m trying to show that people can be elected on the basis of their qualifications and not their race.” But predictably, he became an overnight sensation and race was a major reason. Al Gore Sr said, “I don’t think he was elected because of that. He was elected because of his abilities as a citizen and I believe he retains the same view.” When he approached the well of the Senate for his swearing-in, he was given a standing ovation.
On some issues, Brooke was unmistakably liberal. He backed federal funding for abortions, and the “Brooke Amendment” to the federal publicly assisted housing program limited the tenants’ out-of-pocket rent expenditure to 25 percent of his or her income. On other issues, such as the Kemp/Roth tax cuts, he stuck with his party. His biggest accomplishment may have been the Equal Credit Act, which authorized credit for women separate from their spouses.
The national party complicated Brooke’s disposition particularly the Nixon White House. Brooke liked Nixon personally but hadn’t supported him in the primaries. First, his backing went to Mitt Romney (how ironic that his son would serve as a future Governor of his state). Then, he backed Rockefeller. But he did give the seconding speech at the Republican Convention in 1972 when Nixon was renominated
and his name was at least bandied about as a replacement for Spiro Agnew.
But some areas troubled him, particularly his nominations. Brooke not only opposed Carswell and Haynesworth, but also Bill Rehnquist, one of just three Republicans to do so (fellow Northeasterners Javits and Case were the others). He chided Nixon for proposed funding cuts for, among other things, the Job Corps and the Equal Opportunity Commission. And he became the first GOP Senator to call for his resignation.
By the time Brooke was running for a third term in 1978, he faced additional problems. One was that Ted Kennedy, with whom he had always got along, campaigned for the Democratic nominee, Paul Tsongas. Another that was not not strongly enough attending to the “Bay State’s” needs.
But Brooke also had serious personal woes, the most damaging being that his mother in-law had improperly received $27,000. Who was leaking these stories? His daughter.
Tsongas did not raise the issue of Brook’s alleged improprieties, but may have been helped by his clever ads (poking fun at his name helped him win his tight primary). Plus, Tsongas may have been helped by a shift to the right, even among the strongly Democratic Massachusetts electorate. Remember, Michael Dukakis was being unseated in the Gubernatorial primary by Ed King, who ran well to his right. Tsongas had actually run to Brooke’s right. True to form, Tsongas beat Brooke 55-45%.
In a concession speech, he said “now that the campaign has concluded, I trust that there will be people in the United States Senate who will fight for our senior citizens, for our minorities, for our blacks, for our Hispanics, for the handicapped and the poor and the middle class who are becoming the poor and who will fight for peace on earth, things in which you and I believe, will fight for full equality for all women, for equal justice for all people.””As obviously you have given me ..the greatest opportunities of my life ….I leave the job only with a feeling that there is so much more to be done and a strong belief that I could do it.”
Brooke stayed in the nation’s capital and resumed practicing law. At nearly 94, he is the nation’s second oldest living Senator (Virginia’s Harry Byrd is 99).