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Moseley Braun, Carol

Black Women in America

Eric D. Duke

Moseley Braun, Carol 

(b. 16 August 1947), first African American woman senator.

Moseley Braun made history in 1992 when she became the first African American woman—and first African American Democrat—elected to the U.S. Senate. With her election to the nation’s top legislative body, she instantaneously became a symbol of both racial and gender diversity. However, Moseley Braun’s career as a U.S. Senator was only one highlight in her successful career as both a lawyer and public official. With a résumé composed of service at the local, state, and federal levels, Moseley Braun proved to be more than simply a “symbol.” She established herself as one of the premier public officials in the United States, for any race or gender.

Born to Public Service

Carol Moseley was born in Chicago to Joseph J. Moseley, a law-enforcement official, and Edna W. Davie Moseley, a medical technician. Carol spent her early childhood in a middle-class neighborhood in Chicago. Her father (who she remembered as a follower of W. E. B. Du Bois’s ideal of the “Talented Tenth”) and her mother (who embraced Booker T. Washington’s pragmatic emphasis on the ability to earn a living) combined to create an atmosphere of racial pride and commitment to the broader black community. However, she also remembers the family home as a “United Nations of 41st Street,” often filled with people of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, which added an integrated and multiracial component to her world. In this environment, which did not present either race or gender as an obstacle to success, her idealism and sense of duty were forged.

Moseley Braun, CarolClick to view larger

Carol Moseley Braun

made history in 1992, when she became the first African American woman and first African American Democrat elected to the United States Senate. Austin/Thompson Collection

With her parents’ divorce in 1963, Moseley Braun’s world began to change. She and her other brothers and sisters moved with their mother to her grandmother’s Chicago neighborhood, nicknamed the “Bucket of Blood.” Here Moseley Braun was introduced to the world of poverty and despair that, unfortunately, was familiar to many African Americans. This experience further fueled Moseley Braun’s sense of duty to help the downtrodden and economically disadvantaged. During her high school years, Moseley Braun showed early signs of political inclinations. She staged a one-person sit-in at a restaurant that refused her service and also marched in an open-housing demonstration led by Martin Luther King Jr.

After her graduation from the Chicago Public Schools system, Moseley Braun entered the University of Illinois at Chicago. There she majored in political science and began to create more formal ties to the world of politics through her efforts as a campaign worker for future Chicago mayor Harold Washington’s state representative campaign. Upon completion of her bachelor of arts degree in 1968, Moseley Braun entered the University of Chicago Law School, where she earned her juris doctorate in 1972. During her time at Chicago, she also met Michael Braun, a fellow law student, whom she married in 1973.

After working briefly in a private firm, Moseley Braun joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago in 1973. As an assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Illinois, she worked primarily on civil and appellate law, eventually winning the Attorney General’s Special Achievement Award in recognition of her work in housing, health policy, and environmental law. In 1977, Moseley Braun left the U.S. Attorney’s Office to start her family, giving birth to son Matthew the same year.

While busy as a new mother, Moseley Braun also volunteered her time on local environmental issues. After seeing her in action, friends encouraged Moseley Braun to run for the position of state representative for her diverse Hyde Park neighborhood. Running as a Democrat, she won election to the Illinois General Assembly in 1978, and began a ten-year career as an Illinois state representative. Moseley Braun proved to be a quick study in the world of politics, earning the respect and admiration of her constituents and colleagues for her work on such issues as education and health care. She also continually worked against various forms of discrimination, particularly in the fight for redistricting—an issue that eventually led her to sue her own Democratic Party and the state of Illinois, seeking fair reapportionment for African Americans and Latinos. Her work as a state representative won her two Best Legislator Awards (1980 and 1982) from the Independent Voters of Illinois and awards from various other professional organizations in Illinois. Recognition from within the political community included her appointment as assistant majority leader in the general assembly (the first African American to hold that position), as well as floor leader for then-Chicago mayor Harold Washington. She was even mentioned as a possible candidate for lieutenant governor in 1986. That opportunity never materialized, purportedly due to the veto of Harold Washington, who may have been displeased with Moseley Braun’s independent nature.

The year 1986 proved to be a trying one in Moseley Braun’s personal life. During this year, Moseley Braun divorced her husband, lost her brother Johnny to drugs and alcohol addiction, and her mother suffered a serious stroke. Despite these personal devastations, Moseley Braun continued to work as a state representative until 1988. At that time, she left the general assembly and won election as the recorder of deeds and registrar of titles for Cook County. Though this city-level position may have seemed a step backward to some onlookers, Moseley Braun had once again made history, becoming the first African American elected to an executive position in Cook County. During her tenure in this position, Moseley Braun was credited with leading the reorganization and streamlining of her agency, including the establishment of a code of ethics for employees.

In 1991 Moseley Braun, like many women (especially African American women), watched the Senate confirmation hearing of the Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in disbelief. The whole country watched as the almost exclusively male Senate appeared to close ranks behind Thomas and treat the Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill, who charged that Thomas had sexually harassed her, with both contempt and disrespect. One of the senators who voted to confirm Thomas was longtime Illinois politician Al “The Pal” Dixon. Angered by what she witnessed, and further fueled by others with similar outrage, Moseley Braun launched an improbable bid for the U.S. Senate in 1992.

Elected into History

Moseley Braun’s campaign for the Senate drew little attention at first, but by the time the general election occurred in 1992 she had made history. In a three-way race for the Democratic nomination, Moseley Braun ran a grassroots campaign alongside the incumbent, Al Dixon, and Alfred Hofeld, a free-spending, multimillionaire personal-injury lawyer. While the two men waged a high-profile campaign against each other, Moseley Braun maintained her grassroots appeal to the wide array of Illinois voters—men and women, rural and urban—who were tired of politics as usual. When the dust settled from the March primary, Moseley Braun had won the Democratic nomination and became the first African American woman nominated to the U.S. Senate by a major political party. Some political pundits sought to explain her nomination as the result of the three-way race in which the other two candidates’ campaigns against each other supposedly opened the door for Moseley Braun to slide into the nomination. However, such explanations ignored Moseley Braun’s political appeal to the broad coalition of voters who supported her.

Whereas her campaign had once been low profile and largely ignored by state and national media outlets, Moseley Braun took on an almost celebrity status after her primary victory. The former city and state official was almost instantaneously launched into political stardom as national media outlets celebrated, and scrutinized, her campaign. While the months leading to the general election were marked with some internal campaign turmoil, Moseley Braun rode her coalition of voters to a general election victory over the conservative Republican nominee, Richard S. Williamson.

Many deemed the 1992 national elections the “Year of the Woman” and saw Moseley Braun’s election to the U.S. Senate as the crowning achievement. Her election was historic for many reasons. Moseley Braun was the first African American woman and the first African American Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate. In addition, she was the first female senator from Illinois and the sole African American member of the Senate at the time.

In making history, Moseley Braun, in addition to her political duties to Illinois, carried the extra responsibilities of a symbol. She was, for many, the “women’s senator” and the “African Americans’ senator.” Moseley Braun admits that she sometimes felt overwhelmed in her role as both symbol and senator, receiving up to five hundred requests a week for her participation in various events, far more than any other senator. Nevertheless, Moseley Braun worked hard in the Senate to be more than a symbolic presence and proved to be more capable than many expected a freshman senator to be. In a particularly poignant episode in 1993, Moseley Braun made a stand to block the Senate’s renewal of a federal patent for the logo of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which included the flag of the Confederacy. Backed by the support of the powerful senator Jesse Helms, and discreetly attached as an amendment to a national service bill, the renewal initially passed a test vote 52 to 48. However, outraged by what she believed would be the U.S. Senate’s approval of a symbol of slavery, Moseley Braun gave an impassioned speech against the motion. While recognizing that the women of the organization had a right to celebrate their history, she argued that a symbol of slavery must not be “underwritten, underscored, adopted, approved by this United State Senate.” After hearing Moseley Braun’s compelling and convincing argument, numerous senators were convinced to change their votes and the measure was soundly defeated.

This proved to be only the beginning of Moseley Braun’s distinguished career as a senator. Moseley Braun worked as an ardent advocate of numerous education, health care, and civil rights measures. She went on to serve on such committees as the Senate Judiciary Committee; the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee; and the Senate Finance Committee. Moseley Braun continued to work as both a senator for the state of Illinois and a symbol to the broader African American community. The latter was not always an easy task, as she sometimes received the ire of other black leaders if she did not side on a subject the way some believed she should have. Nevertheless, she remained liked and admired by most within the black community and was acknowledged for her work on numerous issues, including her advocacy of the Underground Railroad Act to preserve historic sites associated with the escape routes of former slaves.

While many people originally believed Moseley Braun would be reelected easily at the end of her term, by 1998 she faced an increasing amount of opposition. Plagued by inquiries into her personal and campaign finances, as well as controversy surrounding her questionable trip to Nigeria (where she visited the family of the military dictator General Sani Abacha), Moseley Braun’s reelection proved a harder task than originally assumed. Though exonerated of financial misdoings, she failed in her reelection bid, losing to the Republican Peter Fitzgerald in 1998.

Though Moseley Braun’s political star appeared to dim briefly, she was not ready to resign from political life. In 1999, Moseley Braun accepted a consulting position with the U.S. Department of Education. Later that year, she was also appointed the ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa. After her ambassadorship ended, Moseley Braun took on various consulting jobs and briefly worked as a professor at Morris Brown College and DePaul University.

In 2003, Moseley Braun surprisingly reentered the political arena when she announced her candidacy for the president of the United States. Assuring voters that her résumé was “second to none” and that she was more qualified than many other candidates, Moseley Braun presented herself as the antithesis of the then-current president, George W. Bush. Her campaign called for increased spending on education, the protection of civil liberties (which she felt were eroded by such post-September 11 legislation as the Patriot Act), and an end to U.S. military action in Iraq. Moseley Braun withdrew from the presidential race in January 2004. However, her political future remained uncertain in mid-2004. Regardless of a return to national politics, Moseley Braun’s astonishing and history-making career made her one of the most important African American women in American government

See also Legislators.


Carol Moseley Braun for President. http://www.carolforpresident.com.Find this resource:

Carol Moseley Braun OK’d as U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand. Jet, 29 November 1999.Find this resource:

Clymer, Adam. Daughter of Slavery Hushes Senate. New York Times, July 23, 1993.Find this resource:

Haynes, Karima A. Will Carol Moseley Braun Be the First Black Woman Senator? Ebony, June 1992.Find this resource:

Krol, Eric. Moseley Braun Battles Odds in Bid for a Political Comeback. Chicago Daily Herald, 22 September 2003.Find this resource:

Marks, Alexandra. The Quest of Carol Moseley Braun. Christian Science Monitor, 20 November 2003.Find this resource:

Merida, Kevin. Senator, Symbol, Self; with Three Big Roles to Juggle, Carol Moseley Braun Always Has Her Hands Full. Washington Post, 15 August 1994.Find this resource:

Moseley-Braun, Carol. Between W. E. B. Du Bois and B. T. Washington. Ebony, November 1995.Find this resource:

Moseley-Braun Takes Consulting Post with U.S. Education Department. Jet, 25 January 1999.Find this resource:

President Clinton Signs Underground Railroad Act to Preserve Sites of Historic Slave Escape Route. Jet, 10 August 1998.Find this resource:

Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun’s Recent Trip to Nigeria Causes Foreign Policy Uproar. Jet, 9 September 1996.Find this resource:

Thompson, Kathleen. Carol Moseley-Braun. Facts on File Encyclopedia of Black Women in America, edited by Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson. New York: Facts on File, 1997.Find this resource:

Walsh, Edward. Carol Braun’s Rocky Road to History; After the Upset, It’s Still a Long Way to the Senate. Washington Post, 28 April 1992.Find this resource:

Wilkerson, Isabel. Black Woman’s Senate Race Is Acquiring a Celebrity Aura. New York Times, 29 July 1992.Find this resource:

Wilkerson, Isabel. Milestone for Black Woman in Gaining U.S. Senate Seat. New York Times, 4 November 1992.Find this resource:

Wilkerson, Isabel. Storming the Senate ‘Club.’ New York Times, 19 March 1992Find this resource:

Eric D. Duke