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A Quartet To Remember
Since the Civil War the nation has sent just four African-Americans to the Senate. Why?
April 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 2
Blanche K. Bruce’s story was both more colorful and more in tune with the Horatio Alger spirit of the Gilded Age. He was born a slave in 1841 but got some rudimentary learning from his owner and after emancipation founded a black school in Hannibal, Missouri. He managed to get to Oberlin College for some advanced education, kept himself alive for a while thereafter by working as a riverboat porter, and finally arrived in Mississippi in 1868 with seventy-five cents in his pocket. Six years later he was a senator-elect. Smart investing in real estate had earned him moderate wealth, while good manners, suavity, and political realism had made him the popular choice for a number of successive local offices. Bruce did not encounter the outbursts that had greeted Revels, but he was equally unable to accomplish much. He successfully advocated federal aid to navigation on the Mississippi, a cause popular with the whole South, but his efforts on behalf of pensions for black Union veterans and desegregation of the Army failed. A more important lost battle was his inability to get the Senate to confirm the challenged election of Pinckney B. S. Pinchback, as senator from Louisiana. Pinchback, too, was a self-made black success story; he was not seated because the tide was turning against Reconstruction. Not only would there be no second black senator to serve with him, but black representation in the House sank from seven members to none as the Fifteenth Amendment, giving the vote to all regardless of race, was fraudulently and forcefully nullified in the South. In 1880 Mississippi chose a Democrat for Bruce’s seat. He moved to Washington, where he held several federal appointments from Republican Presidents. At his death in 1898 he was a comfortable member of the District’s “colored” elite.
No other black joined Bruce in the Senate, and House representation dropped from seven to none.
It was from that elite that Edward Brooke emerged before he arrived in the Senate a full eighty-six years after Bruce had left it. Educated at the then-segregated Dunbar High School and Howard University, Brooke, the son of an attorney for the Veterans’ Administration, followed World War II service in Italy by taking a law degree at Boston University. Brooke began a private practice in Massachusetts in the 1950s. He ran for the state legislature as a Republican, which made him something of a rarity; by then the “black vote” had been solidly Democratic for almost a generation. Brooke lost on two successive tries for the legislature, but he finally broke through to victory by being elected the state’s attorney general in 1962. Nomination for senator followed in 1966, and he beat his Democratic opponent—no easy task in Massachusetts.
Though Brooke had not taken a major part in civil rights activities, his victory clearly owed something to the fact that the movement for equality had just crested in the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. If the first Reconstruction was indispensable to getting Revels and Bruce into the Senate, the rekindling of its ideals a century after was at the least helpful to Brooke. “There was no special fanfare for me,” he noted later of his swearing in. “I felt like a member of the club.” He remained for two terms, a moderate Republican with a strong interest in tax reform, fair housing, truth-in-lending legislation, and aid to education. He served on President Johnson’s commission to investigate the causes of the urban riots of the sixties, and later he led the charge to defeat two Nixon nominees for the Supreme Court.
Generalizations about Senator Moseley-Braun’s term, a rather controversial one in Illinois, are hard to make this soon after her defeat. It was not remarkable for any major legislative initiative, and she was something of an accidental senator. Previously a little-known lawyer, state legislator, and recorder of deeds, she emerged the winner in a 1992 three-way Democratic primary in which she had broad support from women throughout the state during the so-called Year of the Woman, while her two male opponents split the rest of the vote between them. Then she won against a conservative Republican candidate no more familiar to the voters than she was. Her skin color was neither a campaign issue nor the reason for her victory.
What we are left with is a record of two African-American senators elected under the one-time-only circumstances of Reconstruction, another chosen at the high tide of a civil rights crusade of the 1960s, and one winning office more or less unexpectedly. It is hardly a promising prospect for African-Americans planning senatorial careers, although there are now hundreds, even thousands, of black mayors and city and state officials (but no governors at the moment) and a significant black membership in the House of Representatives. But at least the trend—if so meager a showing can be said to constitute a trend—is promising. That is, the earlier two African-American senators were the products of a fleeting historic moment, their service eclipsed by decades of institutionalized racism, but the two in our century reflect the changes the civil rights movement has worked on the national consciousness. It says something about that change that our third black senator could merge unnoticed into committees and groups busy with matters unrelated to race—and that the election and non-reelection of the most recent had nothing to do with race at all.