Updated Sunday, Jan. 4, 7:45 a.m. EST: While mourning the loss of former U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke, President Barack Obama and others praised him as a giant who left an outsized footprint on America’s political landscape.
“Michelle and I were saddened to learn of the passing of former Senator Edward Brooke,” the president said in a statement. “Senator Brooke led an extraordinary life of public service, including his time in the US Army.”
As the first African American elected as a state’s attorney general and first black U.S. senator elected after Reconstruction, Brooke stood at the forefront of the battle for civil rights and economic fairness, President Obama said. “During his time in elected office, he sought to build consensus and understanding across partisan lines, always working towards practical solutions to our nation’s challenges.”
The president was not alone in his sentiments.
"Massachusetts has a history of sending giants to the U.S. Senate, great statesmen like Quincy Adams, Webster, Cabot Lodge and Kennedy,” Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said in a statement. “We count Ed Brooke among them. He carried the added honor and burden of being ‘the first’ and did so with distinction and grace. I lost a friend and a mentor. America has lost a superb example of selfless service. Diane and I extend our deepest condolences to the Brooke family.”
In a statement, Secretary of State John Kerry described Brooke as a strong public servant with a deep voice. “Whether in the Army Infantry during World War II, where he was awarded the Bronze Star fighting fascism; or as state attorney general, battling corruption; or, finally, as a United States senator, helping to pass landmark civil rights legislation and pushing for affordable housing, Ed Brooke gave to his country every day of his life,” Kerry said. “He also showed remarkable political courage when he introduced legislation to name a special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal, and became the first senator in either party to call for President Nixon’s resignation.”
Edward W. Brooke, the Massachusetts Republican who was the first African American elected by popular vote to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction, died Saturday, according to Kirsten Hughes, chairwoman of the Massachusetts Republican Party, the Boston Globe reports. He was 95.
The groundbreaking lawmaker served in the U.S. Senate from 1967 to 1979. Before that, in 1962, he was elected Massachusetts’ attorney general and re-elected two years later. He was the first African American to hold that office in any state, paving the way for Eric Holder to become the first black U.S. attorney general.
He also opened the door for Obama to be elected a senator of Illinois and eventually to become the first black president of the United States. Besides Obama, there here have been five subsequent African-American senators: two Illinois Democrats, Carol Moseley Braun and Roland W. Burris; Massachusetts Democrat Mo Cowan, appointed to fill the seat of John Kerry; South Carolina Republican Tim Scott; and New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker.
Born in Washington, D.C., in 1919, Brooke attended public schools and graduated from Howard University before serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, according to his U.S. Senate biography. After the war, he received a law degree from Boston University. During his Senate career, he championed the causes of low-income housing and an increased minimum wage and promoted commuter-rail and mass-transit systems. He also worked tirelessly to promote racial equality in the South.
A number of awards were bestowed on him throughout his career, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom on June 23, 2004. In October 2009, President Obama presented Brooke with the Congressional Gold Medal, praising him for spending a lifetime “breaking barriers and bridging divides” across the country, according to a White House transcript.
“He didn’t care whether a bill was popular or politically expedient, Democratic or Republican—he cared about whether it helped people, whether it made a difference in their daily lives,” Obama said at the ceremony. “That’s why he fought so hard for Medicare, for mass transit and the minimum wage, for civil rights and women’s rights. It’s why he became a lifelong advocate for affordable housing, establishing protections that are the standard to this day.
“So it’s a record that defies the labels and categories for which he had little use and even less patience,” Obama continued. “When pressed to define himself, he’d offer phrases like ‘creative moderate,’ or ‘a liberal with a conservative bent.’ But in truth, Ed Brooke’s career was animated not by a faith in any particular party or ideology but, rather, by a faith in the people he served."
Besides his wife, Anne, and two daughters from his first marriage, Remi and Edwina, he leaves a son from his second marriage, Edward IV, the Globe reports. His first wife died in 1994.
Read more at the Boston Globe.