Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. John Conyers, R-Mich., discuss the legacy of Sen. Edward Brooke III. GateHouse Media Photo/Peter Urban
By Peter Urban GateHouse Media Washington Bureau
Posted Oct. 21, 2015 at 5:51 PM Updated Oct 21, 2015 at 6:26 PM
WASHINGTON - Edward Brooke, the first African-American popularly elected to the U.S. Senate, was celebrated Wednesday at the Library of Congress, where he was remembered by family, friends and colleagues for his passionate commitment to justice for all.
“He was there for the people regardless of color or creed,” said Bernard Mavritte, a cousin of the late Massachusetts senator. “When they gave him the Congressional Medal of Honor, it was a great ceremony, and he spoke with no notes – articulately and brilliantly. One thing he said was to stop politicking and for both sides to come together for the people.”
Brooke, who died in January at age 95, was twice elected to the U.S. Senate, serving from 1966 to 1978. He lost a third bid to Democrat Paul Tsongas after narrowly winning a Republican primary challenge. Brooke had also served from 1962 to 1966 as Massachusetts attorney general – again being the first African-American to hold that position.
About 80 family, friends and admirers gathered Wednesday in a lavishly decorated room at the Library of Congress – reserved for members of Congress – for the memorial service that was highlighted by a question and answer session with Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. Brooke’s wife and son, Edward Brooke IV, attended the memorial.
Markey marveled at the political genius of Brooke, who he said had the same level of charisma as Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohammed Ali. How else to explain his success in a state where white Irish Catholic Democrats dominated Massachusetts politics while Boston Brahmin’s controlled the Republican minority.
“It began when he ran for attorney general in 1962. He had to beat Elliott Richardson for the Republican nomination,” Markey said. “In other words, a graduate of D.C.’s Dunbar High School and Howard University had to beat a Harvard Law graduate who clerked for Judge Learned Hand – about as perfect a WASP as God has ever created. And Ed Brooke clobbered him.”
Brooke turned out to be a great attorney general and with that record was able to win election to the U.S. Senate in a state where 97 percent of the voters were white, Markey said.
“He won going away,” he said. “And it went across Irish, Italian, black and Wasp. It was a consensus that he was the right man for that job.”
As a member of the Senate, Brooke was “fiercely bipartisan,” Markey said. He was a supporter of President Nixon in 1968 but fought against his early nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court – helping to defeat two of them.
“That just doesn’t happen for a Senator from your own party to lead such a fight,” Markey said.
The memorial service also included brief remarks from Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina – the second African-American elected as a Republican to the U.S. Senate.
Scott said that in reviewing Brooke’s life he was struck by his willingness to work across party lines on behalf of the American people.
“He was a creative Republican who moved Republicans and Democrats to come together on issues important to those folks living in distressed communities,” Scott said. “The power of his conviction brought people of disparate views to the same place.”
Ralph G. Neas, who served six years as Brooke’s legislative director, also spoke glowingly of the senator as someone with the political independence and courage to champion affordable housing, voting rights and reproductive rights during a time when conservative Republicans had begun to challenge those issues.
“We got through the 1970s in large measure because Ed Brooke protected the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Equal Rights Act, Title IX, affirmative action and reproductive rights. He was the leader,” Neas said.
The Library of Congress has a collection of more than 200,000 items - letters, photographs and other documents - from U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke III.