Obama Honors Pioneering Black Senator

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Obama today honored trailblazing lawmaker Edward William Brooke, 90, who he said paved the way for himself and other politicians.

Brooke was the first African American elected to the Senate by popular vote, and he was presented the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda. Mr. Obama was joined at the ceremony by Congressional leaders of both parties.

"Ed is no stranger to a good awards ceremony," said Mr. Obama. "He's won the Bronze Star, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, honorary degrees from 34 colleges and universities, and more. So he's a pro when it comes to getting awards."

Born to a poor family in a segregated Washington neighborhood, Brooke served in a segregated unit in Italy during World War II. After the war, he graduated from law school at Boston University. Rejected by the leading Boston law firms, Brooke founded his own and took an interest in public office.

After three failed attempts to win state office, he became Massachusetts' first African American attorney general. Securing a reputation for fighting organized crime, he went on to the Senate in 1967, serving until 1979.

"When he ran for statewide office in Massachusetts… one reporter pointed out that he was black, Republican, and Protestant, seeking office in a white, Democratic, and Catholic state," Mr. Obama said. "He ran for office, as he put it, 'to bring people together who had never been together before.'"

Brooke also made history as the first African-American in the Senate since the Reconstruction period. His accomplishments include 1968 Fair Housing Act, which was strengthened a year later with the "Brooke Amendment," which capped the rent of tenants on federal housing assistance to 25 percent of their income.

"He didn't care whether a bill was popular or politically expedient, Democratic or Republican," said Mr. Obama. "He cared about whether it helped people, whether it made a difference in their daily lives."

Brooke' other achievements include work on the Title IX, ensuring equal opportunities for women in sports at colleges and high schools, defending Medicare, raising the minimum wage, and affordable housing.

"It's a record that defies the labels and categories for which he had little use and even less patience," said Mr. Obama. When asked about his affiliation, Brooke often coined his own labels, among them "creative moderate."

His bipartisanship has won him followers from across the political spectrum, and his nomination for the medal was championed by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.

"Perhaps a better tribute to him would be to embrace that spirit," Mr. Obama said. "To look for the best in each other, to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and to remember that we're here for a purpose far greater than the sum of our own hopes, needs and ambitions."