The number of African-Americans to serve in the U.S. Senate makes for a very small and exclusive club. At an event hosted by South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, five of the nine gathered at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., Tuesday to celebrate their careers and the importance of paving the way for other African-Americans to succeed in whatever field they choose.
Participants included former Illinois senators Carol Moseley Braun and Roland Burris, former Massachusetts senator William "Mo" Cowan and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Poor health prevented Edward M. Brooke, who was elected to represent Massachusetts in 1966 after a period of 85 years without an African-American in the upper chamber of Congress, from participating. The group's most notable member, President Obama, also did not attend.
"One of the reasons I thought this was an important opportunity for us to gather today is that we have so many young kids who are thinking about the future and asking, 'What's in it for me?'" Scott said. "I thought one of the best ways we could show them, no matter where they come from, how they started, how difficult life is... that all things are absolutely, positively, unequivocally possible in the United States of America."
The lawmakers also discussed the importance of mentoring children and young adults. Scott has spoken often and openly about how his mentors essentially saved his life. One, he said, spent the last four years of his life helping the future lawmaker plan the next four of his.
"No matter how busy we think we are pursuing our dreams, perhaps part of our dream is helping someone else reach their dream," the South Carolina Republican said.
Burris, who filled the Senate seat Obama vacated in 2008, agreed, adding that the obligation to give back does not end with retirement. No matter how "old, decrepit and crippled you get," he said to applause, "you must continue to give back."
When asked what were the biggest obstacles they faced on their journey to the Senate, a surprising number pointed to themselves for a broad range of reasons, from having too-low expectations to giving into silly distractions.
The key, Cowan said, was to put himself in the way of opportunity and strive to be as successful as possible, but not be afraid to fail.
"Failure teaches some very valuable lessons," he said.
Moseley Braun was the only participant who spoke frankly about the partisan gridlock that has taken hold of both chambers of Congress to the disservice of the American public and young people in particular. Making matters worse, lawmakers no longer are defined simply as Republican or Democrat but by "what kind" of Republican or Democrat they are.
She also expressed concern that some communities may be moving backward.
"We have to address our policies in ways that respect community, that honor our past and celebrate our future, that recognize that if we in our time don't provide for the next generation at least as much as the last generation provided for us, we will have failed," Moseley Braun said.
Later, Scott reflected on the challenges of being the only African-American Republican in Congress, which he said has its "extra weights and burdens," as does being a woman or even a white guy.
"I think the American experience really is such that says everyone has a unique position in every body, and so for us to focus so much on our unique positions really distracts us from the primary issue of making a difference for all Americans," he said.
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(Photo: Courtesy of Lauren Victoria Burke/Crewof42.com)