Former Sen. Edward W. Brooke, the first African-American senator elected by popular vote, was honored at a funeral service Tuesday as a trailblazer, a remarkable legislator and an inspiration to future generations.
Lawmakers, dignitaries and family members gathered at the National Cathedral in D.C. to pay tribute to the Massachusetts Republican, who died on Jan. 3 at the age of 95. Brooke, a World War II veteran, was buried at Arlington Cemetery. He was born in the District of Columbia on Oct. 26, 1919. Before the funeral service, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., honored Brooke during a speech on the Senate floor.
“So while I’m sure the Brooke family will mourn a man they loved today, just as any family would, I hope those who loved Sen. Brooke can remember that they have a lot to be proud of, too," McConnell said. "As does the Senate. As does our country."
The lawmakers who attended the service struck a similar tone, highlighting Brooke's achievements in the Senate and in forging a path as the first African-American senator since Reconstruction.
“Sen. Brooke shunned the title of 'trailblazer,' but that’s what he was," said Secretary of State John Kerry. "He inspired thousands of young people of every race."
Kerry, who represented Massachusetts in the Senate for nearly 30 years, detailed Brooke's journey from a soldier in WWII to a Massachusetts political icon. Brooke served in the Senate from 1967 to 1979.
“Ed Brooke was steered by his own compass my friends," Kerry said. "He had a sense of direction that clearly was defined in the chaos of war."
Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran, said he first met Brooke when protesting the war in 1971, but it was not until Kerry came to the Senate in 1985 that he got to know the former senator.
Kerry said Brooke would often stop by to discuss the Senate and the news of the day. "Whenever I saw him I was struck by his warmth, his kindness, his interest in what I was doing,” Kerry said.
Kerry also described Brooke's legislative achievements, and highlighted his advocacy for the poor, minorities and women. “He knew that government wasn’t the enemy. Government was us,” Kerry said.
Brooke received the Congressional Gold Medal , and both Kerry and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., referred to his speech in 2009 as he accepted the award that day, during their tributes.
“In recent years, as Ed Brooke received the highest civilian honors our nation can bestow … he reminded us that the work to which he had dedicated his own best efforts remained unfinished,” Kerry said.
Norton focused on Brooke's roots in D.C. Brooke attended Dunbar High School and graduated from Howard University before serving in the war. Brooke went on to earn a law degree from Boston University and was elected as Massachusetts' attorney general.
“You do not grow up desiring to be a United States senator if you were born in the District of Columbia in 1919," Norton said, pointing out that, at the time, the District did not have a local government. “Edward Brooke was a self-made senator.”
Norton said that Brooke not only inspired future politicians, but continues to inspire D.C. citizens.
“The residents of his hometown continue to struggle for equal rights as American citizens and for statehood," Norton said. "But nothing could inspire our citizens more than a native son, born in a city without a vote or a local public official, who rose to cast votes in the Senate of the United States.”
Senate Chaplain Barry Black spoke of how Brooke personally inspired him during a time of self doubt. In his homily, Black referred back to Langston Hughes' poem, "A Dream Deferred," which questions if a dream deferred explodes. Black said he believes unrest and violence occurs when dreams explode, and his own dream was close to exploding while attending college in Alabama.
Black, who grew up in Pennsylvania, said college was the first time he experienced "the Southern spin on Jim Crow" and segregation. The breaking point came when he was turned away from church.
"It was more than I could deal with. My dream was deferred,” Black said, explaining that he was pushed toward agnosticism. “That was when I learned that Edward Brooke was the new senator from Massachusetts. It was as if a glimmer of light came through my darkness. It was as if an unbearable load suddenly became bearable. He kept dreams from exploding.”
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