Remembering Ed Brooke, the Senate’s Civil Rights Pioneer and Prophet of a Post-Racial America

Burton Berinsky/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty
Burton Berinsky/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty
Ed Brooke, the first African-American Senator since Reconstruction, embraced fights with the left and right. But it’s time for civil rights historians to give the pioneering Republican the respect he deserves.

Ed Brooke was a man ahead of his time—a pioneer of the civil rights movement and a prophet of a post-racial America that is still beyond us. And like all prophets, he was under-appreciated by his country, his community, and his party for far too long.

In 1966, Ed Brooke single-handedly desegregated the Senate by becoming the first African-American elected by popular vote in American history as a Republican from Massachusetts—where less than 3 percent of the population was black and less than 1 in 10 voters were registered Republicans.

His Senate election occurred just three years after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” and one year after LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act into law over the objections of GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, a frequent Brooke foe. In 1962, when Brooke became the first African-American Attorney General in the nation, President Kennedy called it “the biggest news in the country.”

During his two terms, Brooke was discussed as a possible Vice President on Richard Nixon’s re-election ticket and then became the first Republican to publicly call for Nixon’s resignation after Watergate. He championed increased public housing, tax-credits for the working poor, fought for desegregation of public schools and uttered one of the first known calls for what is now known as cyber-security on the Senate floor, saying “for computer-caused invasions of privacy there are no laws. Here we must enact legislation to safeguard the constitutional rights of our citizens from cybernetic invasions.”

But despite the string of firsts that follows Brooke’s name, he was essentially ignored by otherwise exhaustive civil rights historians as well as his own party during the Reagan-Bush years. He was too much his own man for their tastes.

A native of Washington, D.C., and a graduate of Howard University, Brooke was called up after the attack on Pearl Harbor and ultimately served as a second lieutenant in the all-black 366th Combat Infantry Regiment on the front lines of Italy. He returned with a bride, Remiga Ferrari-Sacco, and earned a law degree from Boston University where he was editor of the law review.

Why was Brooke a Republican? As he described to me one of several interviews over the last decade, “The Republican Party was the party that gave hope and inspiration to minorities. … My father was a Republican. My mother was a Republican. They wouldn’t dare be a Democrat. The Democrats were a party opposed to civil rights. The South was all Democratic conservatives. And the African-American community considered them the enemy.”

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Source: The Daily Beast | John Avlon

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