Before Sen. Booker, There Was Sen. Brooke

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

Brooke compiled a substantial legislative record, but he did so quietly. He served on the Kerner Commission and was a tireless champion for the cause of fair housing. He also waged a long and lonesome fight in favor of school busing. But Brooke staged few dramatic acts. He was essentially a moderate in a time of tumult, and a liberal Republican during the heyday of Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” He does not fit with the famous movements of that era: civil rights, Black Power and the white backlash. This very ambiguity often allowed him to float above controversy at the time, and made him attractive to many white Massachusetts voters. It also left him out of the main stories of America in the 1960s and 1970s.

In addition, one must consider the specific racial history of Massachusetts. What many remember about race in Massachusetts during Ed Brooke’s career is the Boston busing crisis, not Brooke himself. They recall white resistance, not interracial politics. When Boston exploded in racial violence during 1974, the tumult had a way of overshadowing all that had come before.

In 1972, Brooke coasted to re-election. He had not yet stood on the Senate floor and railed against anti-busing bills. But after Boston was enveloped in backlash and blood, the atmosphere shifted.

In 1978, Brooke met his defeat. During that last Senate campaign, he faced a Democratic congressman from Lowell named Paul Tsongas. In Brooke’s first two campaigns, he had tugged on the heartstrings of Massachusetts voters. He told them that they were color-blind, that they were enlightened enough to elect a black senator. But in 1978, Tsongas turned the tables. “It is the other side of racism” to re-elect Brooke because of his race, said Tsongas. “After 12 years, that’s enough for a symbol.”

Brooke’s challenge in 1978 neatly describes the dilemma that many black politicians have confronted in their quests for re-election. The first victory inevitably felt symbolic. Many white voters might have pulled the lever for an African American in order to prove to themselves — and to the world — that they were capable of such a breakthrough. But when the African-American candidate ran for re-election, something more was at stake. The voters had to pass judgment on the man and his ideas more than the idea of the man. Not only that, they also had to accept an African American as their leader and return him to the job.

The good news for Cory Booker is that white Americans have proved themselves capable of doing just this: The Bay State voters returned Deval Patrick to the governor’s office in 2010, and of course, Americans backed President Obama for re-election in 2012. Next year, Booker will have to persuade the New Jersey electorate to do the same. Ed Brooke, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, will certainly be watching.

Jason Sokol is assistant professor of history at the University of New Hampshire. He is the author of There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights. He is also the author of The Northern Mystique: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn (Basic Books, forthcoming in 2014).