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As first popularly elected Black senator, Edward Brooke defied political odds

Edward W. Brooke joined campaign workers in celebration in Boston after winning the Republican nomination for US Senate in 1966.Frank C. Curtin

This Black History Month, the Globe is saluting people who have made a difference in Massachusetts.

US Senator Edward W. Brooke spent his first day in office sorting through 10,000 letters, 1,237 speaking invitations, and 800 job applications.

His historic win, the first African American popularly elected to the US Senate and the first elected since Reconstruction, had resonated across the world. Over the next 12 years, Brooke, a Republican, established himself as a civil rights champion and pioneer.

“This is the supreme moment of my life,” Brooke said during his victory speech in 1966. “It proves that the people of Massachusetts judge you on your merit and worth.”


Born in 1919 in Washington, D.C., Brooke had a comfortable, middle-class upbringing and later said he rarely encountered discrimination. After attending Howard University and fighting in World War II, Brooke graduated from Boston University School of Law in 1948. He soon opened a one-man law firm in Roxbury.

Brooke’s first political runs for state representative in 1950 and 1952 were unsuccessful. He returned to politics eight years later, and eventually became the first African American state attorney general in 1962.

“My God, that’s the biggest news in the country,” then-President John F. Kennedy said of Brooke’s victory.

Edwina Brooke, 10, kissed her father Edward W. Brooke, Republican nominee for attorney general, with his wife, Remigia, and daughter, Remi, 13, as they checked election returns in the Globe in 1962.Paul J. Connell

In 1966, Brooke surprised political prognosticators by defeating then-Democratic GovernorEndicott Peabody in a landslide election.

“I do not intend to be a national leader of the Negro people,” Brooke told TIME in 1967. “I intend to do my job as a senator from Massachusetts.”

A self-described “creative moderate,” Brooke forged alliances on both sides of the political aisle. He opposed civil rights groups’ efforts to boycott schools while protesting segregation in Boston. But he also supported abortion rights, co-wrote the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which outlawed housing discrimination, and was the first Senate Republican to call for President Richard Nixon’s resignation.


He served until 1979, after losing a reelection bid to Paul Tsongas.

Thirty-seven years after first serving as senator, Brooke was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004. He received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.

Brooke died in 2015 at age 95. During his funeral at the National Cathedral, politicians, family, and friends reflected on his career.

“If we never waste the opportunity to help each other live better lives, then none among us would ever have to want for a life that could not be attained,” said his son, Edward W. Brooke IV, invoking the words of his father, at the ceremony. “We must continue to work as he did, with faith in the possibility of the best possible outcome.”

President Bush presented Edward W. Brooke with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civil award, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, June 23, 2004. SUSAN WALSH

Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at tiana.woodard@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.