As Cory Booker takes his place in the U.S. Senate, 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, Massachusetts voters made Brooke the first popularly elected black senator since Reconstruction. (Mississippi’s 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?
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” and the upcoming “The Northern Mystique: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn.