Before Sen. Booker, There Was Sen. Brooke

Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke was a black, liberal Republican when such a thing still existed.

(The Root) — As Cory Booker takes his place in the United States Senate today, history suggests that it is not too early for him to start planning his re-election campaign. Yes, this is partly because his term expires in January 2015. But it’s also because only one African American has ever won re-election to the U.S. Senate. Edward Brooke pulled off the feat more than 40 years ago.

When Booker won election earlier this month, one might have expected to hear quite a bit about Ed Brooke. In 1966, the Massachusetts voters made Brooke the first popularly elected black senator. (Mississippi Senator Hiram Revels was the first black to serve in the Senate; his legislative colleagues in the state House elected him to serve in a vacated Senate seat in 1870.) Between Brooke and Booker, two African Americans have been elected to the Senate: Carol Moseley Braun and Barack Obama.

Yet Booker’s election seems to reinforce just how forgotten Ed Brooke has become. He is rarely mentioned in histories of the civil rights movement, in stories of famous barrier-breakers or in studies of American politics. For most Massachusetts natives, even those of us with an abiding interest in race and politics, Brooke has long remained something of an unknown.

In part, this is because he has been dismissed as a black conservative. He certainly was no civil rights activist. But neither was he a conservative. He belonged to the liberal wing of the Republican Party back when that was not a contradiction in terms.

When Brooke first campaigned for his high office, the odds seemed stacked against him. He was a Republican in a staunchly Democratic state and an Episcopalian in a state full of Catholics. More to the point, African Americans counted for less than 3 percent of the Bay State’s population. Brooke, the state’s attorney general then, was very popular among white suburbanites. In the 1966 Senate contest, he defeated Endicott “Chub” Peabody by 22 percentage points.

At the time, political leaders, journalists and Bay State voters all endowed Brooke’s election with weighty import. A Concord, N.H., newspaper called Brooke’s election a “hallmark in American political history.” Amsterdam News columnist Poppy Cannon White wrote on Nov. 26, 1966, “the sweeping victory of Edward Brooke is Topic A across the country.” White invested Brooke’s election with a transformative power: “The world has moved.” The editors of Boston’s Jewish Advocate placed Brooke’s victory within a longer historical perspective. “It does not take a seer to know that long after such [men] as [Lester] Maddox and [George] Wallace are forgotten, the nation will remember the day that Attorney General Edward W. Brooke was elected by Massachusetts.”

From the vantage point of the 21st century, the outstanding fact is that many Americans do remember George Wallace, the Alabama segregationist who stood in the schoolhouse door. Yet Brooke often seems consigned to the dustbin of history. If his election was such a landmark, if it so moved the world, why is it so little remembered?