For much of its existence, the Democratic Party undeniably earned a racist reputation. The Solid South was its base in national elections, with whites-only electorates voting always for the Democrats because of resentment from the Civil War. President Woodrow Wilson was a Southern-raised segregationist; one of the young officials carrying out his orders was assistant Navy Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt.
That deplorable history has turned around, but it ought to be remembered that it was the Republican Party that sent to the U.S. Senate the first popularly elected African-American senator. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts died at 95 recently, and he was remembered by black politicians of both parties as a trailblazer and mentor.
The president of the Urban League, former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, met Brooke through his father, the late Mayor Ernest N. Morial.
“He was a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. He was an African-American in the U.S. Senate when it was dominated by Dixiecrats and segregationists of the likes of Richard Russell, Strom Thurmond and others,” Morial remembered. “He was also a man who navigated his position as both a historymaker and a senator in a deft and effective way — championing civil rights while at the same time honoring his commitment to the people of Massachusetts.”
Morial is not alone in recognizing the role that Brooke played in advancing black Americans in office. He was lauded by President Barack Obama and Massachusetts’ first black governor, Deval Patrick, both Democrats.
Morial also noted that Brooke worked across party lines, by necessity as a Republican in the minority in politics in Massachusetts. In those days, it was understood that relatively liberal Republicans like Brooke were needed to keep GOP seats in the northeastern states.
Today, the parties are dramatically rearranged from those years.
Over time, the Republicans have become more conservative and the Democrats more liberal; political scientists argue that the conservative tilt on the GOP side has been more intense, but certainly the currents have been at work in both parties.
There remain moderate Republican officeholders in the northeastern states but the liberal wing of the party that Brooke graced is no more.
Nevertheless, the Senate that Brooke served in remains devoted to its traditions, and we hope that the attitudes of constructive compromise have not altogether gone by the wayside. The country needs a forum that can come together around common purpose.