(CNN) — Last month, we mourned the passing of Edward Brooke. Nearly 50 years ago, in 1966, he was elected to the U.S. Senate by the people of Massachusetts, making history as the first African-American elected to the chamber since Reconstruction. He was a Republican, which seems unusual now, but in light of the Emancipation and Reconstruction of a century ago it reflects the complexities of black history in America.
Brooke dedicated his life to serving his country. After graduating from Dunbar High School and Howard University in his native Washington, D.C., he shipped off to Italy, where he earned a Bronze Star for his service with the segregated 366th Infantry Regiment in World War II.
Before he passed away, Brooke said he was “thankful to God” he lived to see the election of our nation’s first black president. In 2009, when Brooke was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal, President Obama honored the contributions of Brooke as “a man who’s spent his life breaking barriers and bridging divides across this country.”
Five years earlier, Brooke had been honored by President George W. Bush with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his work that bridged racial and political divides.
It’s poignant that Americans were introduced to Barack Obama during his campaign for the Senate, following the footsteps that Edward Brooke had walked decades earlier. In fact, Barack Obama in 2004 was only the second African-American elected to the Senate after Brooke’s historic 1966 victory. (The first after Brooke was Carol Moseley Braun, also of Illinois, in 1992.)
Addressing the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston, Massachusetts, the state which Brooke had once represented as a Republican, candidate Obama sought to break barriers and bridge divides.
Obama reminded us, “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”
Black History Month is an opportunity to celebrate the immeasurable contributions the African-American community has made to the United States of America. From Edward Brooke to Barack Obama, we need to take this opportunity to recognize those who have broken down barriers and helped lead us to form a more perfect union.
Later this month, the film “Selma” will be among those recognized at the Academy Awards for depicting the struggle and sacrifices made to secure the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is a battle we are still fighting, particularly in light of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to strike down key components of the legislation.
Fifty years after “Bloody Sunday,” when some 600 civil rights activists were beaten by local police as they tried to march from Selma to Montgomery for full voting rights, we’re witnessing new restrictions as state legislatures jump at newfound opportunities to curtail voting rights across the country.
The Selma campaign of 1965 sought to lift thousands out of the crippling grip of poverty. And much like guaranteeing the franchise, the issue of expanded economic opportunity has remained relevant to the African-American community over the years. Drawing on his own experiences, Brooke looked to the areas that would serve as the building blocks for families to reach the middle class.
After returning from World War II, Brooke attended Boston University School of Law on the GI Bill. Senator Brooke fought to assure even more young people had access to a quality education from the cradle through college. He championed the fight to protect Title IX, ensuring equal opportunities for girls and women in education.
Brooke also devoted his life to the issue of housing. His amendment to the federal housing act made public housing more affordable for low-income families and helped bring the American Dream within reach for more families. Today, President Obama would call those efforts middle-class economics — helping families afford the cornerstones of economic security.
In the modern workplace, a good K-12 education often isn’t enough.
While Republicans in Congress offer little in the way of real solutions, President Obama has called for expanded early-education opportunities, bolstered job training programs and proposed two years of tuition-free community college for responsible students.
Helping middle-class families get ahead also means providing them the peace of mind that they can afford child care, have access to quality, affordable health care, and be able to save for retirement.
Making the American Dream accessible to everyone helps to bridge the divide between Democrat and Republican, and between black and white.
Leaders of the African-American community, like Edward Brooke and Barack Obama, have helped us break down barriers that divide America both politically and economically, whether it’s in the halls of power or the streets of the middle class. This Black History Month, we draw on the example of the people who made our history to help us shape our future.
Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. A nationally syndicated columnist, she is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of “Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in America.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.