When will we have Another ELECTED African-American U.S. Senator?

William 'Mo' Cowan

“This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress; but let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised, and bleeding, but God-fearing people, faithful, industrious, loyal people–rising people, full of potential force.” – Hon. George H. White, of North Carolina, 1901


Today, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick appointed William “Mo” Cowan to be the intern United States Senator from Massachusetts, to replace Senator John Kerry (the newly appointed Secretary of State). Cowan will join South Carolina’s Tim Scott as the only African-Americans currently serving in the U.S. Senate. Both Scott and Cowan were appointed to their seats. There has been eight African-American Senators in U.S. History and only THREE of those eight were elected.  President Barack Obama was the last elected African-American Senator (elected to the Senate in 2004). So, when will we have another?

Here are the eight African-American U.S. Senators:

Hiram Revels

Hiram Revels of Mississippi became the first African American senator in 1870.  Born in North Carolina in 1827, Revels attended Knox College in Illinois and later served as minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland.  He raised two black regiments during the Civil War and fought at the battle of Vicksburg in Mississippi.  The Mississippi state legislature sent him to the U.S. Senate during Reconstruction where he became an outspoken opponent of racial segregation.  Although Revels served in the Senate for just a year, he broke new ground for African Americans in Congress (Senate.gov).

Blanche K. Bruce

Born into slavery in 1841, Blanche K. Bruce spent his childhood years in Virginia where he received his earliest education from the tutor hired to teach his master’s son.  At the dawn of the Civil War, Bruce escaped slavery and traveled north to begin a distinguished career in education and politics. Elected to the Senate in 1874 by the Mississippi state legislature, he served from 1875 to 1881. In 2002, the Senate commissioned a new portrait of Bruce, now on display in the U.S. Capitol (Senate.gov).

Edward Brooke

The first African American elected to the Senate by popular vote, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts served two full terms, from 1967 to 1979. Born in Washington, D.C. in 1919, Brooke graduated from Howard University before serving in the United States Army during World War II.  After the war, he received a law degree from Boston University. During his Senate career he championed the causes of low-income housing and an increased minimum wage, and promoted commuter rail and mass transit systems. He also worked tirelessly to promote racial equality in the South (Senate.gov).

Carol Moseley Braun

Some called 1992 the “Year of the Woman.” More women than ever before were elected to political office in November of that year, and five of them came to the U.S. Senate.  Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois not only joined that class on January 3, 1993, but also became the first African American woman ever to serve as U.S. Senator.  During her Senate career, Moseley Braun sponsored progressive education bills and campaigned for gun control. Moseley Braun left the Senate in January of 1999, and soon after became the U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand, a position she held until 2001. Moseley Braun ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004 (Senate.gov).

Barack Obama

Barack Obama was born in Hawaii on August 4th, 1961. He received his earliest education in Hawaii and Indonesia, and then graduated from Columbia University in 1983. He moved to Chicago in 1985 to work for a church-based group seeking to improve living conditions in poor neighborhoods. In 1991, Obama graduated from Harvard Law School where he was the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review. He served in the Illinois state senate from 1997 to 2004. Elected to the United States Senate in November of 2004, he took the oath of office and became the fifth African American to serve in the Senate on January 3, 2005. On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected as the 44th President of the United States (Senate.gov).

Roland W. Burris

Born in Centralia, Illinois, on August 3, 1937, Roland Burris earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a Juris Doctor degree from Howard University. After finishing law school in 1963, Burris became the first African American to work as a national bank examiner for the Treasury Department. When Burris was elected comptroller of Illinois in 1978, he was the first African American to win a statewide election in Illinois. After serving more than ten years as comptroller, he became attorney general of Illinois. Appointed to the Senate on December 31, 2008, Burris filled the vacancy caused by the resignation of Barack Obama (Senate.gov).

Tim Scott

Appointed to the Senate on January 2, 2013, Tim Scott became the first African American since Reconstruction to represent a Southern state in the Senate. Born in North Charleston, Charleston County, S.C., on September 19, 1965, Scott attended Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., before graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree from Charleston Southern University in Charleston, S.C., in 1988. An entrepreneur, Scott pursued a career in insurance and real estate. He served on the Charleston County, S.C. council from 1995 until 2008, and was a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives from 2009 until 2010. Elected as a Republican Representative to the One Hundred Twelfth Congress, Scott served one term in the House of Representatives before being appointed to the United States Senate (Senate.gov).

William “Mo” Cowan

Cowan is a North Carolina native and Duke University graduate who came to Boston to attend Northeastern University Law School in the early 1990s – and never left the region. One of the city’s leading African-American lawyers, Cowan is a former partner in the politically connected law firm of Mintz Levin (Boston Globe).

Cowan is expected to serve on an interim basis and isn’t going to run to complete Kerry’s term meaning come this summer we will have only one (Scott) African-American Senator. Scott will be facing a difficult re-election in 2014, so there is no assurance that he will hold on to his seat pass then.

With the exception of Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker there are very few African-Americans in either party poised to hold an office greater than U.S. Representative. Since Reconstruction there has been only been three African-American governors, so why are such limitations placed on African-American politicians? The primary reason for the lack of African-American senators and governors is the absence of a political infrastructure to elevate qualified African-American candidates. Without proper political infrastructure to raise money, name identification, and adequately campaign with African-Americans will continue to fall short of obtaining higher political offices.

In the “Age of Obama” it is easy to forget that we do not live in a “post-racial” society and that there are still stigmas and limitations placed on African-American lawmakers. There have been only eight African-American U.S. Senators and 3 African Americans Governors since Reconstruction, I long for the day when we will be able to lose count of the number of African-Americans that has served as governors and senators.

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