In 1966, Edward William Brooke III (October 26, 1919 –January 3, 2015) a Republican politician, became the first African American popularly elected to the United States Senate. Brooke grew up in Washington, D.C. at a time when the nation’s capital was still highly segregated. He attended all-black schools, graduated from Howard University, fought in Italy with a segregated infantry unit in World War II, and then returned to the United States to earn a law degree from Boston University. Entering state politics in Massachusetts in the 1950s,
Brooke ran as a Republican because of his family tradition, and because he admired the Republican virtues of duty, self-help, thrift, and free enterprise. He distrusted big government and agreed with Lincoln that “government should do for the people only that which they cannot do for themselves.” Brooke viewed the Massachusetts Democratic Party as corrupt and mean-spirited, launching McCarthyite attacks on Harvard and resisting anti-discrimination laws, preferring the state’s moderate-dominated Republican Party, which upheld civil rights and civil liberties.
In 1962, Brooke was elected the first African-American Attorney General of a U.S. state. In this position, he gained a reputation as a vigorous prosecutor of organized crime and corruption.
In 1966, Brooke was elected to the U.S. Senate. He served for two terms, from 1967 to 1979. The Black vote had, according to an article in Time Magazine, “no measurable bearing” on the election as less than 3% of the state’s population was Black, and Brooke’s Democratic opponent also supported civil rights for Blacks. Brooke said, “I do not intend to be a national leader of the Negro people”, and Time Magazine further reported that Brooke “condemned both Stokely Carmichael and Georgia’s Lester Maddox” as extremists.
Brooke organized the Senate’s “Wednesday Club” of progressive Republicans who met for Wednesday lunches and strategy discussions. Brooke supported Michigan Governor George W. Romney’s and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s bids for the 1968 GOP presidential nomination against that of Richard Nixon, and Brooke often differed with President Nixon on matters of social policy and civil rights.
By his second year in the Senate, Brooke had taken his place as a leading advocate against discrimination in housing and on behalf of affordable housing. With Walter Mondale, a Minnesota Democrat and future U.S. Vice President and Democratic Presidential nominee, Brooke co-authored the 1968 Fair Housing Act, prohibiting discrimination in housing. Brooke continued to propose adding stronger enforcement provisions to housing laws during his Senate career. In 1969, Congress enacted the “Brooke Amendment” to the federal publicly assisted housing program, which limited a tenant’s out-of-pocket rent expenditure to 25 percent of his or her income.
During the Nixon presidency, Brooke opposed repeated Nixon Administration attempts to close down the Job Corps and the Office of Economic Opportunity and to weaken the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—all foundational elements of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
In 1969, Brooke was a leader of the bipartisan coalition that defeated the Senate confirmation of Clement Haynsworth, the President’s conservative nominee to the Supreme Court. A few months later, Brooke again organized sufficient Republican support to defeat Nixon’s second Supreme Court nominee, Harrold Carswell. On November 4, 1973, shortly after the Watergate-related “Saturday night massacre,” Brooke became the first Republican to call on President Nixon to resign.
Brooke was a leader in the enactment of the Equal Credit Act, which ensured married women the right to establish credit in their own name. In 1974, with Indiana Democratic senator Birch Bayh, Brooke led the fight to retain Title IX, a 1972 amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965, which guaranteed equal educational opportunity (including athletic participation) to girls and women. In 1975, with the extension and expansion of the Voting Rights Act at stake, Brooke faced senator John Stennis (D-Mississippi) in “extended debate” and won the Senate’s support for its extension. Senator Brooke also sponsored wide-scale, legalized abortion.
Brooke was far ahead of his time in envisioning a post-racial America. He lamented that “Like a life form trapped in amber, I was forever categorized in terms of race.” He wanted to prove that an African American could impartially represent people of all races, and that “white voters would vote for qualified Negro candidates, just as Negroes had voted for qualified white candidates.” At a time of Black Power separatism and rising black-white antagonism, Brooke believed the Republicans had a more hopeful vision of race relations. His victories implied that equal opportunity for blacks was possible both within the Republican Party and within the American political system.
In place of radical rhetoric, Brooke supported progressive alternatives to Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, such as the Ripon Society’s negative income tax, which would benefit lower-income Americans of all races.
For more about Brooke, check out the video page on The Lone Liberal Republican’s website or the following videos below.
This video contains an interview with Senator Brooke on why he was a Republican. This second video is of President Obama’s speech about Senator Brooke, which includes a story from the 1950’s of John F Kennedy telling Edward Brooke that he should be a Democrat, and Edward Brooke telling John F. Kennedy that he should be a Republican.