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Black senators say their careers symbolize racial progress

  • McClatchy Washington Bureau
  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, at 5:02 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, at 5:38 p.m.

— Just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, where they sometimes joust over taxes, health care and other partisan issues, Tim Scott and Cory Booker shared both gratitude and amazement Tuesday at their historic status as the first two African-Americans to serve in the United States Senate at the same time.

All told, there have been only seven black U.S. senators since Reconstruction, and one of them now sits in the White House.

Five of the remaining six – with Scott currently the sole Republican African-American in Congress – discussed their personal journeys in a Library of Congress forum to celebrate Black History Month.

“I don’t think in the history of the republic we have had this many African-Americans who served in the United States Senate gather in one room,” said retired Rear Adm. Barry C. Black, the Senate chaplain, who moderated the discussion.

Scott, starting his second year in the Senate after his appointment by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to replace Jim DeMint, organized the event and delivered opening and closing remarks.

“As a member of the United States Senate now, I see it as a blessing from the Lord,” Scott told a predominantly black audience of 500 people. “All things are absolutely, unequivocally possible in the United States of America in a way that they are not possible anywhere else in the world.”

Scott and Booker of New Jersey were joined by Democratic former Sens. Carol Moseley Braun and Roland Burris, both of Illinois, and William “Mo” Cowan of Massachusetts.

Barack Obama, who served four years as a Democratic senator from Illinois before being elected the nation’s first black president in 2008, was invited, but did not attend.

Scott drew peals of knowing laughter as he recounted his childhood in North Charleston, S.C., in a poor, single-parent home.

“My grandmother believed that sometimes love comes at the end of a switch – and she loved me a whole lot,” he said.

A former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, the South Carolina House of Representatives and the Charleston County Council, Scott acknowledged that he was a less-than-stellar student in high school, where he starred in football.

“I think I’m the only United States senator to ever fail civics,” Scott said.

As laughter built, he deadpanned: “And math. And English.”

Scott faces no Republican primary opposition this year. Democrats Rick Wade, viewed as the favorite, and Joyce Dickerson are challenging him in the November general election to serve out the remainder of DeMint’s term through 2016. DeMint resigned his seat in January 2013 to become head of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center in Washington.

Moseley Braun, the only black woman to serve in the Senate, appeared to surprise some in the audience when she said that being a woman presented more obstacles than being an African-American.

“Race bias is local,” Moseley Braun said. “Gender bias is universal. Gender bias is as bad as race bias.”

Moseley Braun said her single Senate term, from January 1993 to January 1999, was very hard on her.

“Why was it so important to run me into the ground and make it so difficult for me?” she asked.

During much of her term, Moseley Braun fought allegations that she had used campaign funds for personal expenses. Republican Peter Fitzgerald defeated her in November 1998. She subsequently served as an ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa.

While the politicians generally avoided partisan comments, there were subtle differences in some of their observations. Scott, the only Republican, emphasized individual initiative; Democrats Booker and Moseley Braun stressed the importance of civil rights and government aid.

“You are very aware if you serve after the civil rights movement that you stand on the shoulders of giants,” said Booker, a former Newark mayor.

A graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School, Booker joined the Senate after a special election last October to replace Sen. Frank Lautenberg after his death.

Saying “We’re in a period of decline,” Moseley Braun added, “The civil rights movement was about providing opportunity for the next generation. Right now, a lot of (young people) are running around unafraid to die at 19 because they don’t think there will be anything for them at 29.”

The federal government, she said, must help fill the breach. It “has real meaning in the lives of people,” she added.

In the audience, Calvin Snowden was moved by what he heard from the panel.

“For me, it is the dream fulfilled,” the former NFL defensive end said. “When our ancestors toiled and dreamed in the fields, their vision was this that appeared on the stage today.”

Snowden, who played five seasons in the late 1960s and early 1970s for the St. Louis Cardinals, San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills, earned his master’s degree at Howard University and went on to work with students hoping to excel in college.

Also in the audience was Command Sgt. Maj. Benjamin Scott, the South Carolina’s senator’s older brother and a 30-year Army veteran currently serving at Fort Belvoir, Va.

“What an honor,” Benjamin Scott, 50, told McClatchy. “I am so proud of my brother. To know where we’ve come from to where we are now, what a testament to the great nation in which we live.”

Asked whether his brother might harbor presidential ambitions, Benjamin Scott responded: “I truly believe that Tim can do anything he sets his mind on. I mean that without reservation.”

Steve Brook and Andrew Shain of The State contributed to this article from Columbia, S.C.

Email: jrosen@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose

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