Lesson 117:
Edward Brooke

An ongoing illustrative history study
This piece originally posted 2/23/2023

Prelude | 113 | 114 | 115 | 116 | 117 | 118 | 119 | 120 | 121 | Email

Edward Brooke - pen and ink, 2.5 in. x 3.5 in.

"I've never tried to run away from my race. I was born a black man. You know that in your bones as soon as you are able to understand this country."

Today we look at the remarkable career trajectory of Edward Brooke, III, Massachusetts attorney general and two-term U.S. Senator (1967-1979). Born in 1919 Washington, D.C., Brooke was himself the son of a Howard University law school alum and Veterans' Administration attorney. Following in his father's footsteps when he graduated Howard in 1941, Brooke then joined the U.S. Army during World War II (serving in the famed all-Black 366th Combat Infantry), seeing action in Italy and ultimately earning a Bronze Star. After the war Brooke earned his law degree from Boston University Law School, but initially showed no interest in a political career --in fact he never deigned to vote until the age of 30.

Confounding much of the prevailing wisdom of the day, Brooke entered politics as a Republican --campaigning for various Massachusetts state-level legislative offices throughout the 1950s but to no success. Then in 1960 he ran for Massachusetts Secretary of State state's Attorney General --significantly the first-ever Black nomination for a statewide office in Massachusetts' history. Though he also lost that election (narrowly), two years later he made a successful run for state's Attorney General, becoming the first elected Black Attorney General of any state. During his time in office he gained some notoriety as a key coordinator of the prosecution of the infamous "Boston Strangler," Albert DeSalvo. In 1966 he ran for U.S. Senate as a Republican, defeating the incumbent and again making history by becoming the first African-American to ever be elected to the Senate by direct popular vote. (See Lesson #24 in this series for some context, in the biography of Blanche Kelso Bruce.) In 1972 Brooke was re-elected, acquiring another historical footnote as the first-ever African-American senator to win a second term.

Chided by some as being "too black to be white" and by others as "too white to be black," Brooke figured out how to walk a uniquely independent line, at times even declining to participate in conversations on race. Among Brooke's most significant accomplishments in the Senate included his co-authorship of Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act --also known as the Fair Housing Act of 1968, enacted one week after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Brooke also led successful challenges against not one but two of Richard Nixon's Supreme Court nominees based on their stated views on segregation. Also noteworthy is Brooke being on record as the first Republican Senator to publicly call for Nixon's resignation in November 1973. After leaving office Brooke returned to Washington, D.C. to continue to practice law. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004, and awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.

"The polarization of Congress; the decline of civility; and the rise of attack politics in the 1980s, the 1990s, and the early years of the new century are a blot on our political system and a disservice to the American people."

Suggested further reading: Bridging the Divide: My Life by Edward W. Brooke (2006)

Next page - Lesson 118: Bernice Robinson

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