WASHINGTON — Hundreds gathered at the National Cathedral Tuesday morning to honor the life of former Massachusetts senator Edward William Brooke III, who was remembered as a self-made trailblazer.
Brooke, a Republican who died Jan. 3 at the age of 95, was the first African-American elected to the US Senate by popular vote. He represented Massachusetts from 1967 to 1979 and served as the Commonwealth’s attorney general from 1963 until his first Senate term began.
Attendees included Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Senators Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Timothy E. Scott of South Carolina, former Massachusetts senator William “Mo” Cowan, and former Massachusetts governor Deval L. Patrick.
Kerry, who served in the US Senate from 1985 to 2013, called the late senator “a man of consummate dignity” who stayed true to himself and what he believed in. He praised Brooke’s leadership during World War II, compassion for those in need, progressive legislative mind, and warmth toward everyone he met.
“Senator Brooke shunned the title of trailblazer, but that’s what he was,” Kerry said in remarks during the service. “Ed Brooke was not just a pioneer: He was an advance scout probing the soul of our country.”
Brooke was buried later Tuesday afternoon at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. Before enrolling in law school at Boston University, Brooke spent five years in the Army. He ascended to captain in the segregated 366th Infantry Regiment and served in Italy during World War II, where he earned a Bronze Star and met his first wife, Remigia.
More than 100 loved ones and admirers drove and trudged through steady rain to say goodbye to Brooke, huddling around his casket and hilltop grave.
As Massachusetts attorney general, Brooke cracked down on the Commonwealth’s rampant corruption. His successful two terms in Boston catapulted him into the Senate, where he also served for two terms before losing to the late Senator Paul Tsongas in 1978.
Brooke was a moderate Republican by the day’s standards. He supported a woman’s choice to have an abortion, helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and authored an amendment that capped public housing rent at 25 percent of the resident’s income. Brooke also opposed the Vietnam War and called for President Richard Nixon’s resignation before any other Senate Republican.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia praised Brooke’s remarkable path to public service despite growing up in a place with limited governmental representation. Brooke was born and raised in the District and attended Howard University in Washington before enlisting in the Army in 1941.
“The Senate has always had its share of self-made men and women. Edward Brooke was a self-made senator,” Norton said in her remarks. “The man that became a natural politician — charismatic, charming, brilliant, and utterly approachable — invented himself.”
Speakers also commemorated the importance and improbability of Brooke’s historical electoral success. Only 3.1 percent of the Commonwealth’s population in 1970 was black, according to census data, and Kerry praised Brooke for ignoring requests to wait until Massachusetts was “ready” for a high-ranking African-American public official.
“His electoral triumphs were astonishing,” Kerry said, “where school desegregation at the time was an explosive issue, and where the face of prejudice might appear ugly with anger or thinly masked by code words.”
Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black recalled how Brooke’s election helped him cope with prejudice while attending college in Alabama. He called the late senator’s election “a glimmer of light.”
“It was as if an unbearable load suddenly became bearable,” said Black, who said Brooke “kept dreams from exploding,” referring to Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem.”
Beyond Brooke’s political and military legacy, those who knew him well remembered him as a warm, loving man committed to making the world the best it could be.
Kerry recalled how at the start of his own Senate career, Brooke never shied away from questions. Norton said Brooke never forgot where he came from and said it showed in the way he led his life.
“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. “We must continue to work as he did with faith in the possibility of the best possible outcome.”Sylvan Lane can be reached at Sylvan.Lane@globe.com.