Edward Brooke was the first African-American to be elected to the Senate since Reconstruction, when, 85 years earlier, Mississippi’s Blanche Bruce would not be reappointed to his Senate seat. The year was 1966 and the place was Massachusetts and Brooke captured the seat of retiring Senator Leverett Saltonstall in an electorate that was just 3 percent black. That wasn’t the remarkable thing. What was remarkable was that race encompassed little, if any role at a time when civil rights was a dominant issue.
While the Senate race lacked any kind of racial acrimony, Brooke’s early life did not. He grew up in Washington, D.C., but eventually moved to a primarily white neighborhood. His relations with the white community were harmonious, and Brooke graduated from Howard University. But he served in the Army during World War II and his unit was segregated.
Brooke said “in the Army, I felt racial discrimination more keenly than ever before. I could not ignore that our government’s policy endorsed blatant inequalities.”
When he returned home, he found himself unable to get a job by any of Boston’s big law firms. So he sought to turn lemons into lemonade.
Black Biography quoted two of Brooke’s Army buddies, “… wanted Brooke to run for the office to improve living conditions for the great masses of blacks who lived in Roxbury, Massachusetts.” As to why he joined the GOP: “My parents were Republicans, and I had always admired the party of Lincoln and the Republican virtues of duty and self-help.”
Brooke sought a state Senate seat in 1950 using “cross-filing,” where a candidate for office can submit his name in both party primaries. Brooke did win on the Republican line, but as expected, not the Democratic. He narrowly lost the election. He lost again in a bid for Secretary of State in 1960 (Massachusetts’ favorite son John F. Kennedy was on the ticket), but only by 12,000 votes. But by becoming the first African-American in Massachusetts to win a nomination for a statewide office, his stock was soaring. And the people who counted took note. He rebounded by being tapped by the governor for a major banking post.