The Historic Gathering of America’s African-American Senators

More than half of the blacks who ever served in the chamber met last week to discuss their trailblazing paths.

Pete Marovich/MCT, via Getty

In a town where rhetoric is overblown and trivial events are hailed as monumental, an historic event took place in Washington, D.C. last Tuesday that received scant attention when it deserved so much more. With little fanfare, Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) convened a special panel to gather at the Library of Congress to celebrate Black History Month. With so much attention now placed on events overseas, I didn’t want this story to get lost in the shuffle.

The gathering, entitled “Honoring Our Past And Celebrating our Future” brought five of the seven living black senators to Washington to reflect on their personal journeys and how America has progressed in a country where only nine blacks have served in the United States Senate. Those present last Tuesday were senators Tim Scott (R-SC) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) as well as former senators Carol Moseley-Braun (D-IL), Roland Burris (D-IL), and William “Mo” Cowan (D-MA). Sadly, former Senator Ed Brooke (D-MA) was in frail health and unable to attend while Barack Obama, who was senator before he was president, elected not to join.

Still, seeing five distinguished current or former black Senators reflect on their experiences was fascinating on several levels. As retired Navy Rear Admiral Barry C. Black, the 62nd Chaplin of the Senate (who is also black) opened the session: “In the history of the Republic, we’ve never had this number of African-American Senators in one place—truly an historical event…that is awesome.”

There was a sense that a passing of the baton from one generation of senators to the next had taken place. Perhaps this was best described in a story by Carol Moseley-Braun who started her remarks with the following:

“They named a school after me in Chicago. I walked down the hall and two little boys passed me. One said: ‘Hey, that is Carol Moseley-Braun?’ The other little boy said to the first ‘She isn’t dead, yet?’”

More poignantly, Booker reflected that younger blacks had much to be grateful for given the remarkable strides taken since the civil rights movement. Here he noted: “You are very aware if you are born after the leaders of the civil rights movement you stand on their shoulders in a conspiracy of love.”

Perhaps what was most striking is how all the senators present had overcome numerous barriers in their journey to the Senate. Moseley-Braun spoke of how gender and racial bias had presented many obstacles on her path to the Senate and that she almost quit once in the job due to the strain. “My Senate years were very difficult,” she said. “Why did they want to run me into the ground? Whatever brickbats and reputation damage they did, it was up to me to take it.”

Unlike Moseley-Braun, who was elected by voters, Burris also encountered racism along his path to the Senate prior to his appointment to fill the remainder of Obama’s term. Burris had previously tried and failed to win an election outright. “I had many black people tell me I was crazy or divinely misdirected to think they would elect a black state-wide in Illinois.” In 1978, Burris would become the first African-American elected to statewide in Illinois after winning as first as comptroller and later as attorney general.

Scott, the only Republican on the stage, described how his struggles with school early on, led him to refocus and rededicate his life in service to others. While he initially joked, “I think I’m the only U.S. Senator to have failed civics—I then successfully flunked Spanish and English,” Scott then offered “If you are going to make it in this life, you have to look in the mirror and blame yourself if you don’t like where you are going.”

While Scott was gently ribbed by his colleagues for being the only black Republican in the Senate, Cowan offered one line that electrified the audience in its poignant simplicity. Turning to Scott with a smile on his face Cowan remarked: “I love the fact that the black experience is reflected on the other side of the aisle.” I later asked Cowan to clarify his remark that had elicited widespread cheering in an overwhelmingly black (and presumably Democratic) audience. Cowan told me that the American experience would not be complete until both Democrats and Republicans elected blacks to the Senate from every region of the country with frequency and regularity.

Perhaps South Carolina will take a step in that direction when Scott, who was elected to fill the term of retiring Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), will face the voters in his own election this November. Following the event with his current and former colleagues, Scott was pressed by the press about whether his color would present a barrier or opportunity to for him to become elected to the Senate.

After first noting that he had been elected and subsequently re-elected to the House of Representatives by a 2-to-1 margin in what he characterized as the “home of the civil war” Scott opined:

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“Our country needs people to represent them based not on what they look like but based on their values and beliefs…I think that in the first 150 years we’ve had four black Senators—in the last few decades we’ve had five.”

Whether Scott ultimately prevails in his Senate contest this upcoming November, history was made in Washington last week. Regardless of their party affiliation or State from which they hailed, it was an honor and privilege to share the morning with five of our seven living black senators to celebrate Black History Month. We’ve come a long way in America in dealing with the stain and vestiges of slavery—these pioneers have paved the way for generations yet to come to stand higher on the shoulders of leaders of the civil rights movement to eradicate discrimination.—the so-called conspiracy of love.