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Edward W. Brooke, who broke down barriers, dies at 95

Edward Brooke at a press conference in 1966. Boston Globe

Edward W. Brooke, the Massachusetts Republican who was the first African-American to be elected to the US Senate since Reconstruction, died Saturday morning in his Coral Gables, Fla., home. He was 95, and his health had declined in the past couple of months.

Mr. Brooke served in the Senate from 1967 to 1979. Elected attorney general in 1962 and reelected two years later, he was the first African-American to hold that office in any state.

“As the first African-American elected as a state’s attorney general and first African-American US senator elected after Reconstruction, Ed 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.”


“Massachusetts has a history of sending giants to the United States Senate, great statesmen like Quincy Adams, Webster, Cabot Lodge, and Kennedy. We count Ed Brooke among them,” Governor Deval Patrick said. “He carried the added honor and burden of being ‘the first’ and did so with distinction and grace. I have lost a friend and mentor. America has lost a superb example of selfless service.”

Governor-elect Charlie Baker said he was “deeply saddened by the loss of Senator Edward W. Brooke as we lost a truly remarkable public servant. A war hero, a champion of equal rights for all, and an example that barriers can be broken, Senator Brooke accomplished more than most aspire to. Our party, Commonwealth, and nation are better for his service.”

There have been six subsequent African-American senators: three Illinois Democrats, Carol Moseley Braun, Barack Obama, and Roland W. Burris; Massachusetts Democrat Mo Cowan, appointed to fill the seat of John F. Kerry; South Carolina Republican Tim Scott, and New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker.


“I knew Ed Brooke way, way back. I guess there aren’t many of us left,” said Francis X. Bellotti, a former state attorney general and lieutenant governor. “I always liked him and I had a great deal of admiration for what he accomplished. He blazed a trail and became really one of a kind.”

Mr. Brooke’s electoral success carried enormous symbolic weight. He was a figure of national, even international, prominence. A few months after he went to Washington, a bumper sticker appeared, “The New Look — Romney and Brooke ’68” (“Romney” was Michigan Governor George Romney, the father of future Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney).

At various times, President Richard Nixon offered Mr. Brooke the posts of secretary of housing and urban development, secretary of health, education, and welfare, and ambassador to the United Nations. The achievements of Mr. Brooke, Reader’s Digest suggested in 1967, “will be as much a standard of a whole society’s progress as they will be the measure of an individual who happens to be Negro.”

There was no clearer demonstration of this than the standing ovation Mr. Brooke received from his fellow senators at his swearing-in. Many hoped his election heralded a new era in the civil rights movement. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People awarded him its highest honor, the Spingarn Medal, in 1967 — a dozen years before giving it to Rosa Parks.

Mr. Brooke’s eminence had a paradoxical aspect. What made him such a figure of racial progress wasn’t his emphasizing race but transcending it. He had no choice: The year he was elected attorney general, only 2 percent of Massachusetts voters were black.


One of his most-publicized actions as attorney general was ruling illegal an NAACP-sponsored boycott of Boston public schools. “I am not a civil rights leader and I don’t profess to be one,” he once said. “I can’t serve just the Negro cause. I’ve got to serve all the people of Massachusetts.”

Although born below the Mason-Dixon Line, in Washington, Mr. Brooke had a manner more Brahmin than some Beacon Hill blue bloods. It seemed a natural succession when he assumed the Senate seat of a Yankee icon, Leverett Saltonstall.

Socially, as well as politically, Mr. Brooke was the opposite of another Massachusetts politician not named Kennedy who garnered national attention in the 1960s — Louise Day Hicks, the racially intransigent Boston School Committee member, US representative, and city councilor whose political base was white ethnics.

“Many of his beginnings were in Boston,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said. “Graduating from Boston University Law School, serving on the Boston Finance Commission, and starting his legal practice in the neighborhood of Roxbury — he was one of our own. His progressive ideals aligned with what Boston and Massachusetts hope for in a leader: empowering those who did not have a voice.”

An Episcopalian, Mr. Brooke was chancellor of Old North Church and a member of Trinity Church. He dressed impeccably, spoke in richly cultivated tones, played a good game of tennis, and summered on Martha’s Vineyard (in the traditionally black enclave of Oak Bluffs). He loved opera and served as president and chairman of the Boston Opera Company. “Brooke found himself in a nebulous no-man’s-land between the white and Negro worlds,” Time magazine wrote in 1967.


Less sympathetic, the novelist James Baldwin dismissed Mr. Brooke as “one of the innocents who are bringing about the ruination of the country.”

Just as Mr. Brooke seemed to represent a new era in race relations, so did he appear to betoken one in Republican politics. A self-described “creative moderate,” he entered the Senate with Charles Percy and Mark Hatfield. A year before, John Lindsay had been elected mayor of New York. All four men were vigorous, telegenic, forward-looking. They seemed the cutting edge of a new, revived GOP, turning to the center after Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat in 1964. Instead, the new, revived GOP belonged to Goldwater — and Ronald Reagan.

“I don’t know Mr. Reagan too well,” Mr. Brooke said of the California governor in 1967. He had conspicuously avoided a luncheon in Reagan’s honor two years before. That a new age in neither race relations nor politics happened was, of course, intimately related. The party of Lincoln was increasingly the party of Strom Thurmond. If Mr. Brooke’s race had helped put him center stage, his politics helped marginalize him.

Mr. Brooke bumped up against future US politics in a very different way, in 1969, when he gave the commencement address at Wellesley College. His speech was followed by remarks from a graduating senior, supporting the right of student protest. “Sen. Brooke Upstaged at Wellesley Commencement,” stated a headline on Page 1 of the following day’s Globe. “The blond, bespectacled honor student,” as the Globe story described her, was named Hillary Rodham.


Mr. Brooke’s own actions helped remove him from the political arena. Much of his popularity stemmed from a reputation for dignity and rectitude. During the latter part of his second term, that reputation began to fray. He filed for divorce from his first wife, Remigia, in 1976 and was photographed disco dancing with the actress Elizabeth Taylor at an Iranian embassy party. In her 2008 memoir, “Audition,” the television journalist Barbara Walters revealed that she and Mr. Brooke had had an affair during this period.

He admitted in 1978 to making a false financial statement in a deposition during his divorce. It was learned his mother-in-law had received $50,000 in Medicaid benefits she was ineligible for. “It was just a divorce case,” Mr. Brooke said in a 2000 Globe interview. “It was never about my work in the Senate. There was never a charge that I committed a crime, or even nearly committed a crime.”

Mr. Brooke eventually reimbursed the state Department of Public Welfare $40,000. The Senate Ethics Committee decided that there was “credible evidence” of wrongdoing by Mr. Brooke, though it took no action against him. The voters of Massachusetts already had. In 1978, US Representative Paul Tsongas defeated Mr. Brooke in his bid for a third term.

A few years earlier, the idea that a two-term congressman could have defeated Mr. Brooke would have been unthinkable. In 1972, he had easily beaten Middlesex County District Attorney John Droney, despite the fact that Massachusetts had been the one state not to vote for Nixon, the Republican incumbent, in the presidential race. “I was sorely hurt when the people of Massachusetts voted against me and didn’t look beyond the allegations and didn’t remember what I had tried to do for them,” Mr. Brooke said in that 2000 interview. “Why did it happen? I don’t know.”

Edward William Brooke III was born on Oct. 26, 1919. His father, Edward W. Brooke Jr., was a lawyer with the Veterans Administration. His mother was the former Helen Seldon. The Brookes were comfortably middle class. “It would make a better story if some white man had kicked me or yelled ‘nigger,’ ” Mr. Brooke once noted, “but it just never happened. I grew up segregated, but there was not much feeling of being shut out of anything.”

Mr. Brooke graduated from Howard University in 1941. During World War II, he served in the Army infantry. He became a captain, saw combat in Italy, and was awarded a Bronze Star. While in Italy, he met Remigia Ferrari-Scacco. They married in 1947. Mr. Brooke had been stationed at Fort Devens before shipping overseas and liked what he had seen of the area. In addition, two Army buddies from Boston urged him to relocate here.

He enrolled at Boston University School of Law in 1946. “I never studied much at Howard,” he said in a 1966 interview, “but at Boston University I didn’t do much else but study.” He was editor of the law review and graduated in 1948. Mr. Brooke set up a one-man practice in Roxbury.

“This strong public servant with a deep voice and a big laugh defined the term gentleman, and he gave life to the words “public servant,’ ” said Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who also served in the Senate. “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.”

Interested in politics, Mr. Brooke decided to run for state representative in 1950. He cross-registered in both party primaries (which was allowed at that time) and won the Republican nomination. He also won the Republican nomination in 1952. Both years, he lost but ran well ahead of the Republican ticket.

For the next eight years, Mr. Brooke concentrated on his law practice. He became active in the American Veterans of World War II (now Amvets), where he demonstrated his ability to appeal across racial lines, becoming the organization’s state commander and national judge advocate.

Mr. Brooke returned to politics in 1960, winning the Republican nomination for secretary of state. In November, he lost to Kevin White, the future four-term mayor of Boston, by only 12,000 votes. With favorite-son John F. Kennedy heading the Democratic ticket, it was not the best year to be running as a Republican in Massachusetts.

His near-victory having marked him as a political talent to watch, Mr. Brooke was appointed chairman of the Boston Finance Commission by Republican Governor John A. Volpe. Mr. Brooke made headlines, uncovering corruption in various city agencies.

Besting Elliot Richardson, a future US attorney general, Mr. Brooke won the GOP nomination for state attorney general in 1962 and went on to win in November. “My God, that’s the biggest news in the country,” President Kennedy said of Mr. Brooke’s victory.

Mr. Brooke gained a reputation as a political Mr. Clean with his pursuit of public corruption. He brought indictments against a former governor, two speakers of the House, and a public safety commissioner. He was reelected in 1964 with the largest plurality of any Republican running in the country that year. He attracted national attention for his coordination of the hunt for the serial killer known as the Boston Strangler.

In 1966, Mr. Brooke sailed into the Senate, easily defeating his Democratic opponent, former Governor Endicott Peabody, winning by more than 400,000 votes. Mr. Brooke’s most notable achievements in Washington came in the field of housing. He was instrumental in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the key component of which was an open-housing amendment sponsored by Mr. Brooke and US Senator Walter Mondale, a Minnesota Democrat.

A year later, he authored the so-called Brooke Amendment, which capped public housing rent at 25 percent of the resident’s income. Mr. Brooke proved a frequent thorn in the side of President Nixon. He successfully worked against two of Nixon’s Supreme Court nominees, Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell. In 1973, he was the first Senate Republican to call for Nixon’s resignation.

“I loved working for him,” said Brian Lees, a former state Senate Republican leader who was an aide to Mr. Brooke at the end of his US Senate tenure. “He really believed in the art of compromise. One of the things he said to me always was, ‘Just remember that there are two sides to every issue.’ He was a very strong Republican, but believed you had to work together to get things done. He was disturbed by what is happening in Washington now, that people aren’t sitting down and working things out.”

After leaving office, Mr. Brooke joined a Washington law firm. He also served on several corporate boards and was chairman of the Boston Bank of Commerce. He was chairman of the Low-Income Housing Coalition. He served on President Reagan’s Commission on Housing and the Senate’s Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, investigating treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

“I first observed Senator Brooke during his first term of office while serving as a Senate staffer; even from across the Senate chamber, you could sense that this was a Senator of historic importance,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said.

Kirsten Hughes, who chairs the Massachusetts Republican Party, said, “Any one of his single accomplishments would be remarkable, and yet Senator Brooke could lay claim to so many milestones. A decorated war hero, this Massachusetts Republican was a highly respected legislator responsible for shaping our nation’s laws and ensuring equal rights for all men and women.”

US Representative Niki Tsongas, a Massachusetts Democrat, said she and her late husband, Paul, who defeated Mr. Brooke in 1978, “always had great respect and admiration for him and for his work on behalf of the people of Massachusetts. His lifelong career in public service, in particular as the first African-American elected to the Senate by popular vote, was as courageous as it was historic.’’.

Mr. Brooke led “the life of a country gentleman,” as one associate put it. He moved to a farm in northern Virginia, an hour’s commute from his law practice in Washington.

In 1979, he married Anne Fleming, whom he leaves. For the most part, Mr. Brooke kept a low public profile. He was again in the news in 1989 when a government audit found he had made $183,000 in consulting fees from developers seeking rent subsidies from HUD. An audit nine years later cleared him of wrongdoing. In 2000, the state courthouse at the corner of New Chardon and Merrimac streets was named after him.

In 2002, he was diagnosed with breast cancer, which is rare in men, and underwent a double mastectomy. “When the doctor told me,” he said in a 2003 New York Times interview, “all I could say was, ‘Me? Come on.’ ”

In 2004, Mr. Brooke was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He published an autobiography, “Bridging the Divide,” in 2006. Three years later, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

A service will be announced for Mr. Brooke, who in addition to his wife and his two daughters, from his first marriage, Remi Goldstone of Baltimore and Edwina Petit of Cape Cod, leaves a son from his second marriage, Edward IV of Montreal; a stepdaughter, Melanie Laflamme of Montreal; and four grandchildren. Mr. Brooke’s first wife died in 1994. He also was predeceased by his sister, Helene Brooke Amos.

Bryan Marquard of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.