Brooke Becomes the First African American U.S. Senator Since Reconstruction Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Edward William Brooke’s popular election to the U.S. Senate made him the first black senator since Reconstruction and demonstrated that an African American could be elected to national office in a northern state that had only a small percentage of blacks in the electorate.

Summary of Event

Edward William Brooke’s election to the U.S. Senate was a significant event in the history of the civil rights struggle in the 1960’s. Before the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment Seventeenth Amendment Constitution, U.S.;Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1913, all U.S. senators were appointed by their respective state legislatures. Brooke had been directly and popularly elected in a state in which African Americans were a small minority of the population, marking a significant point in the argument that northerners could overcome any residual racism to elect an African American to national office. African Americans;politicians and judges Senate, U.S. Congressional elections, U.S. [kw]Brooke Becomes the First African American U.S. Senator Since Reconstruction (Jan. 10, 1967) [kw]African American U.S. Senator Since Reconstruction, Brooke Becomes the First (Jan. 10, 1967) [kw]U.S. Senator Since Reconstruction, Brooke Becomes the First African American (Jan. 10, 1967) [kw]Senator Since Reconstruction, Brooke Becomes the First African American U.S. (Jan. 10, 1967) African Americans;politicians and judges Senate, U.S. Congressional elections, U.S. [g]North America;Jan. 10, 1967: Brooke Becomes the First African American U.S. Senator Since Reconstruction[09150] [g]United States;Jan. 10, 1967: Brooke Becomes the First African American U.S. Senator Since Reconstruction[09150] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 10, 1967: Brooke Becomes the First African American U.S. Senator Since Reconstruction[09150] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Jan. 10, 1967: Brooke Becomes the First African American U.S. Senator Since Reconstruction[09150] Brooke, Edward William Revels, Hiram Rhoades Bruce, Blanche Kelso Pinchback, P. B. S.

Brooke was not the first African American to sit in the Senate. Hiram Rhoades Revels was the first African American to serve as a U.S. senator. Mississippi’s Reconstruction Reconstruction (1865-1877) legislature appointed Revels to fill the seat vacated by Jefferson Davis, who left the Senate to become the president of the Confederacy. Revels served from February 25, 1870, to March 4, 1871. Blanche Kelso Bruce was the second African American to serve as a U.S. senator and the first to serve a full six-year term (1875-1881). Bruce was appointed by Mississippi’s Reconstruction legislature in 1874. P. B. S. Pinchback was appointed to the Senate in 1873 by Louisiana’s Reconstruction legislature, but the Senate challenged that election and refused to allow Pinchback to take his seat. He did, however, successfully sue for the salary he would have earned if allowed to take the Senate seat.

These elections took place during the military Reconstruction period in the South after the American Civil War. State legislatures were effectively controlled by the northern occupying military forces. Former Confederate sympathizers were not permitted to be elected and the legislatures had overwhelming Republican majorities, including a number of African Americans. After Reconstruction, which ended in 1876 with the withdrawal of northern troops, white southerners gradually introduced legal segregation and denied African Americans the right to vote. It became impossible for an African American to hold a Senate seat from the South even into the twenty- first century.

Brooke was especially well qualified to break the race barrier, which had kept African Americans out of the Senate for more than eighty years. Born on October 26, 1919, in Washington, D.C., he graduated from Howard University in 1941. He became an officer—a rarity for African Americans—in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. After the war, Brooke earned a law degree and an additional graduate law degree from Boston University. He ran unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate for the Massachusetts legislature in 1950 and 1952. Withdrawing temporarily from politics to establish a successful legal career, he ran for Massachusetts secretary of state in 1960 but lost in a very close election.

Appointed chair of the Boston finance commission, he attracted so much positive publicity that he was elected Massachusetts state attorney general in 1962 and reelected in 1964 by the largest margin ever received by a Massachusetts Republican. In his four years as attorney general, he investigated numerous corruption cases against state politicians and was also a prosecutor of organized crime.

In 1966, Brooke was an obvious choice for the Republican nomination for the Senate. To prepare for the campaign, he wrote a well-received analysis of the Democratic domination of Congress. He then won the general election in a landslide, defeating Democrat Endicott Peabody, former governor of Massachusetts, by a vote of 58 to 42 percent. Brooke was sworn in as the first popularly elected African American senator on January 10, 1967. Compiling a moderate voting record, he won reelection easily in 1972 by an even wider margin—62 to 34 percent—over Democrat John Droney.

During his second term, Brooke went through a difficult and well-publicized divorce. Among other issues, his daughter alleged that he had engaged in financial improprieties. Although a Senate ethics committee ultimately found that his violation of the Senate’s professional conduct rules was a trivial one, that judgment came too late to save his candidacy for a third term in 1978. His popularity had dropped significantly, and he faced a major challenger in Paul Tsongas Tsongas, Paul . Tsongas defeated him by a margin of 55 to 41 percent.

After leaving the Senate, Brooke practiced law and was a member of a commission on low-income housing. He became chair of the Boston Bank of Commerce in 1984 and retired to a farm in Massachusetts. President George W. Bush awarded Brooke the Presidential Medal of Freedom on June 23, 2004.

Significance

Brooke’s popular election to the Senate demonstrated that an African American could be elected to a major national office in Massachusetts, a northern state with a small percentage of African Americans in the electorate. His election was especially significant in the context of the larger Civil Rights movement in the United States. Most of the focus of the movement was on de jure segregation (or segregation imposed by law) in the southern states. Under this type of pressure, southerners accused northerners of hypocrisy, pointing to considerable racism and de facto segregation (segregation in fact) in northern states.

Although there had been a number of African Americans in the U.S. House of Representatives, they all had been elected from congressional districts with a large percentage—if not a majority—of African American residents. That there were no African American senators or governors (and no state with an African American majority population) was taken as evidence that northerners were no more likely than southerners to vote for an African American for national office. Brooke’s earlier election as Massachusetts attorney general helped counter this argument, but his election as a senator was far more effective because of the high visibility of the office. Many committed civil rights supporters in the North pointed to Brooke’s election as evidence that racism could be overcome in the United States. African Americans;politicians and judges Senate, U.S. Congressional elections, U.S.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Avlon, John P. “Senator Edward W. Brooke, 1973: Stuck in the Middle of the Civil Rights Movement.” In Independent Nation: How the Vital Center Is Changing American Politics. New York: Harmony Books, 2004. Discusses the centrist politics of Edward Brooke in the context of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The book as a whole analyzes the “move to the middle” in American politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooke, Edward W. Bridging the Divide: My Life. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2007. Brooke’s autobiography, detailing his personal life, as well as his career as a Massachusetts attorney general and a U.S. senator
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Challenge of Change: Crisis in Our Two-Party System. Boston: Little, Brown, 1966. Brooke’s analysis of the two-party system in U.S. politics. Brooke’s major work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cosby, Camille O., and Renee Poussaint, eds. A Wealth of Wisdom: Legendary African American Elders Speak. New York: Atria Books, 2004. A collection of interviews with noted African Americans in history, with an interview of Edward Brooke. Includes portraits by Howard L. Bingham.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cutler, John Henry. Ed Brooke: Biography of a Senator. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972. Biography of Brooke’s personal life and his political career on the eve of his first reelection.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hartshorn, Elinor C. The Quiet Campaigner: Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1974. A political biography of Brooke as he was after his first election and his reelection, and an analysis of his political campaign style and legislative record.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Swain, Carol M. Black Faces, Black Interests: Representation of African Americans in Congress. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. Brooke is one of several African Americans examined in this comprehensive review of the significance of African American representation in Congress.

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