Senator Edward W. Brooke is an icon in black history, especially when it comes to the U.S. federal government. He was the first black senator from Massachusetts to be elected by the people. Throughout his political career, he worked hard to promote the cause of civil rights.
Brooke was born in Washington, D.C. on October 26, 1919. His father, Edward Brooke Jr., was an attorney with the Veterans Administration. He lived with both of his parents and his older sister.
Shortly after earning his bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, pulling the United States into World War II. Brooke joined the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant.
He was stationed with the segregated 366th Infantry Regiment at Fort Devens in Ayer, Massachusetts. The base in which he served put a whites-only policy in place for all clubs, along with the swimming pool, tennis courts, and general store. “In every regard, we were treated as second-class soldiers, if not worse, and we were angry,” he said. “I felt a personal frustration and bitterness I had not known before in my life.”
While stationed in the U.S., Brooke often defended black soldiers in military court. He did not have legal training, but he became a known as a skilled defender and a “soldier’s lawyer.” In 1948, he earned his law degree, at which time he decided to establish his own law practice in Roxbury, a predominantly black community.
Brooke Starts His Political Career
Brooke decided to run for office for the first time in 1950. He ran for a seat in the Massachusetts state House of Representatives, but he lost. He ran again, two years later, and won the Republican nomination but lost the seat to his opponent from the Democratic Party.
After his second attempt at winning political office, he went back to practicing law. As he continued his work over the years, he planted deep roots in the community.
In 1960, Brooke decided to re-enter the world of politics, running for Massachusetts secretary of state. Unfortunately, he lost again, but performed much better than expected, earning more than one million votes, which helped him build his reputation. Republican Governor John Volpe, recognizing Brooke’s character, appointed him chairman of the Boston Finance Commission. His job was to root out corruption in the city’s agencies. He excelled at his job and grew in popularity.
First Victories and a Long Career
Brooke finally managed to win his first election in 1962 when he ran for the state attorney general, becoming the first African American to occupy that position. As the state’s top law officer, Brooke furthered his efforts to curb corruption and to address crime.
After serving two terms as attorney general, Brooke decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 1965. On the campaign trail, he courted votes from both sides of the political divide despite receiving criticism for speaking out against militant civil rights activists. In November 1966, he won the election and began serving as senator. He was the first black man elected to the Senate since the Reconstruction Era.
He discussed his experience when he first entered the upper chamber. While he did not experience the racism that many other African Americans endured in Congress. He recalled that when he went to the Senators’ swimming pool, he was greeted by Senators Strom Thurman, John Stennis, and John McClellan, who were staunch segregationists.
“There was no hesitation or ill will that I could see,” Brooke recounted, noting that the men were unexpectedly friendly to him. “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.”
While Brooke was a Republican, he was not afraid to argue against stances that others in the GOP held. During his terms in office, he backed affirmative action, minority business development, and public housing legislation. He was originally a supporter of Republican President Richard Nixon, but did not hesitate to criticize him when he believed he wasn’t doing enough to promote equality for black Americans.
In one instance, Brooke stated he was “deeply concerned about the lack of commitment to equal opportunities for all people.” He also opposed three of Nixon’s Supreme Court nominees.
After losing his third re-election effort, Brooke decided to leave the world of politics and returned to practicing law. In 2002, he was diagnosed with breast cancer and used his platform to promote awareness of the disease in men. He passed away in Florida on Jan. 3, 2015.
Brooke was a well-known advocate for civil rights and fought for legislation designed to reverse the impact of the country’s racist policies towards black Americans. As a senator, he became a role model for many young African Americans who wished to affect positive change.