Edward Brooke (Courtesy Photo)
Political leaders from both major parties and District residents recently reflected on the life of Edward W. Brooke III, the first popularly elected African-American senator representing Massachusetts. He was a native Washingtonian.
He died on Jan. 3 of natural causes in Coral Gables, Fla. He was 95.
As a moderate Republican, Brooke was elected in 1966 as a senator at a time when only a handful of Blacks were in the House of Representatives and fewer Blacks served in elected offices. Brooke also made history in 1962 when he was elected as the Massachusetts attorney general, the first Black to be elected to that position in the nation.
President Obama, upon hearing of Brooke’s passing, said in a statement that “Senator Brooke led an extraordinary life of public service” and “Ed Brooke stood on the forefront of the battle for civil rights and economic fairness.” Brooke received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award Congress has to honor civilians, in October 2009. The late senator also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 from President George W. Bush.
Brooke served in the Senate from 1967-1979 and was an outspoken supporter of civil and human rights, federal raid to the poor, increased foreign support for African and Caribbean countries, and a critic of African countries, such as Rhodesia and South Africa, that were ruled by White supremacists. He was one of the first lawmakers to call for President Richard Nixon to resign in light of the Watergate scandal and, according to his book, “Bridging the Divide: My Life,” he was considered a vice presidential and a U.S. Supreme Court prospect.
While Brooke was a passionate Republican, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, nevertheless praised his leadership skills and their impact. “He was a statesman in the truest sense, possessing a commitment to public service which is all too rare to find in this day and age,” Schultz said. “HIs constituents were fortunate to have been served by him and our legislative branch of government was better for his service.”
Schultz’s Republican counterpart, Reince Priebus, agreed. “Brooke was a pioneer and an inspiration to many,” Priebus said. “Our party and our nation have lost a statesman and a trailblazer.”
Outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) tweeted that Brooke was” a friend and a mentor.”
“Massachusetts has a history of sending giants to the U.S. Senate, great statesmen like Quincy Adams, Webster, Cabot Lodge and Kennedy,” Patrick said. “We count Ed Brooke among them. He carried the added honor and burden of being ‘the first’ and did so with distinction and grace.”
Brooke was a graduate of Howard University in 1941 and supported his college alma mater as an alumnus and a senator. He supported the university’s annual congressional appropriation and received an honorary degree in 1967.
Howard University President Wayne A. I. Frederick said Brooke was an example of the fabled “Howard Man.” “He was an advocate for education and a generous donor, with several scholarships in his name for the benefit of students in need,” Frederick said. “He will be greatly missed by all and we at Howard will honor his memory by continuing to ensure that we send our graduates out onto the path he blazed in earnest.”
While at Howard, Brooke joined Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and served as a national undergraduate leader. He stayed active in Alpha throughout his life, participating in national conventions and served, in 1996, as the first chairman of the fraternity’s World Policy Council and chaired its 100th anniversary Centennial Celebration in 2006.
Brooke graduated from Dunbar High School in 1936 and lived in the LeDroit Park neighborhood that was nearby. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), a longtime friend of Brooke’s, said that “the District has lost its most distinguished native son.”
“Edward Brooke had to leave his hometown to get a congressional vote and certainly to become a U.S. senator,” Norton said. “Sen. Brooke, however, never forgot his hometown and played an important role in the city’s quest for the House Voting Rights Act, when he lobbied his former colleagues in the Senate.”
Norton is referring to the 2009 bill that would have given the city a voting representative and Utah an additional representative. It was killed in April 2010 when the National Rifle Association pressured members of Congress to support an amendment eliminating all the District’s gun laws. While that effort failed, the delegate said Brooke tried to do what he thought was right. “D.C. residents will never forget their native son, who got a vote for himself in Massachusetts and used his last years to try to do the same for the city where he was born and raised,” she said.
On Jan. 4, Norton tweeted that Brooke’s wife, Ann, agreed to hold the senator’s funeral services in the District. Norton had not released any further details by AFRO press time.