In our ongoing celebration of Black History Month, we look back at some of the leaders, icons and pop culture juggernauts that helped to bring diversity, equity, inclusion and representation to the forefront of the American landscape — like these men and women who left their indelible mark on the 1960s.
The first session of the U.S. Senate convened on March 4, 1789 in an elegant chamber of New York City’s Federal Hall. Although only eight of the 22 eligible senators were present, they were all white men. Sadly, the troubling racial legacy established that day persisted for 178 more years, with the U.S. senate continuing to be made up of all white representatives, despite the nation’s varied and diverse population.
In fact, it wasn’t until the historic election of Edward William Brooke III as a Senator for the great state of Massachusetts that the nation’s most important legislative body got its first ever Black member.
The son of Helen (Seldon) Brooke and Edward W. Brooke, Edward William Brooke III was born October 26, 1919 in Washington, D.C. Brook’s father, Edward, was an esteemed lawyer with a law degree from the Howard University School of Law and an attorney working for the US Veterans Administration.
Inspired by his father’s service, the younger Brooke also attended Howard, graduating in 1941. From there, he entered the military, becoming an officer in the all-Black 366th Combat Infantry Regiment. Brooke fought in Italy during World War II, winning a Bronze Star for an attack on a German artillery battery. It was during this time in Italy that Brooke also met Remigia Ferrari-Scacco who soon became his wife.
When the war ended, Brooke and his new bride returned to the U.S. and he again followed in his father’s footsteps, entering law school and graduating from Boston University in 1948. Well liked in his community and supported by an ever growing social circle, Brooke was encouraged to enter into politics — so he did, taking the unusual step of running as both a Republican and a Democrat in the Massachusetts state primaries. Although he lost the Democratic nomination, he won as a Republican and wound up on the ballot for the first time.
The elections in 1950 and 1952 didn’t go his way, with Brooke losing both his Senate attempts. However, he didn’t give up and in 1960, Brooke ran again, this time as a Republican candidate for Massachusetts Secretary of State. Although he lost again (to a man named Kevin White), it was by less than 12,000 votes and his popularity in the state continued to explode.
Based on that success, Brooke again ran for Attorney General again in 1962 — only this time he won! He was the first ever Black Attorney General elected in any state in U.S. history. Brooke’s handling of the role was widely celebrated, especially when it came to how he dealt with the high profile case of the Boston Strangler serial killer during his time in office, and in 1964 he was elected for a second term.
By 1966, Brooke was ready for a change and he again ran for the US Senate. And this time, his winning streak continued. He defeated former Governor Endicott Peabody who was also running for the position and was sworn in as a Massachusetts Senator on January 3, 1967, becoming the first Black Senator ever in U.S history.
Brooke notably held his seat in the Senate for two terms, during which time he led the legislative fight in the nation’s capitol to fight poverty, strengthen Social Security, increase the minimum wage, and improve funding of Medicare. A member of the Republican party, he also proudly became the first Republican to call for the resignation of President Richard Nixon as a result of the ongoing Watergate scandal.
After leaving office, Edward William Brooke III was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush and in 2009 he received the Congressional Gold Medal. He passed away in January of 2015 at the age of 95 as a true diversity champion, icon of change, and as one of the most notable and significant Senators in political history.