By Gloria J. Browne-Marshall
For the first time in American history, there will be two African Americans in the U.S. Senate. William “Mo” Cowan, a Democrat, from Massachusetts, will join Senator Tim Scott, a Republican, from South Carolina. These two men, who ascend to the U.S. Senate from similar childhood struggles, now have sharply different political viewpoints.
Mo Cowan and Tim Scott credit their success to mothers and mentors. Tim Scott was failing high school before he met White conservative entrepreneur John Moniz, who ran the local Chick-Fil-A restaurant. Although others attempted to guide the troubled Scott, it was Moniz who is credited with turning Scott’s life around.
William “Mo” Cowan, 43, and Tim Scott, 46, both have deep Southern roots. Senator Scott was born in Charleston, South Carolina. His parents divorced when Scott was seven years old. Scott and his brother were raised by mother, Francis Scott, who worked sixteen hour days as a nurse’s aide, sustaining her family on welfare benefits.
William Cowan was born in Yadkinville, North Carolina, a segregated farming town of less than 3,000 residents. Cowan’s parents, a machinist and seamstress, raised their three children in this community of tobacco farms and Klan rallies. With the death his father, the 16 year old Cowan, and his two sisters, were left in the care of their mother and extended family.
After high school, both men remained in the South for college. Mo Cowan graduated from Duke University, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Tim Scott graduated from Charleston Southern University, affiliated with the Baptist Church.
After college, Cowan set out for Boston, graduating from Northeastern University Law School. Tim Scott stayed in Charleston.
Personable and hard-working, Tim Scott and Mo Cowan became respected leaders. Cowan, in Boston, became a partner in the law firm of Mintz Levin. He sought out Deval Patrick, former Assistant U.S. Attorney for Civil Rights under President Bill Clinton. Patrick would become Cowan’s mentor and friend.
Tim Scott developed a real estate business and became a partner in Pathway Real Estate Group in Charleston. He won early admiration from the GOP by working for local Republican campaigns. Scott first sought elected office in 1995 winning a position on the Charleston County Council, as a Republican.
During Scott’s tenure on the County Council, the local NAACP brought suit under the Voting Rights Act alleging discriminatory districting prevented Blacks from being elected to the Council. However, given Scott’s presence, the suit was rejected, to the frustration of many African-Americans in Charleston. After 13 years on the County Council, Scott was elected to the state House.
However, it was Scott’s 2010 upset in his campaign for U.S. Representative that led to national exposure. Tim Scott defeated Paul Thurmond, son of the late Senator Strom Thurmond, a renowned segregationist. Representative Scott became the first Black Republican to enter Congress from the Deep South since Reconstruction. All other Blacks in Congress, from the South, are Democrats.
In Boston, Mo Cowan joined the administration of now Governor Deval Patrick, who is only the second elected African American Governor. By 2011, Mo Cowan was Patrick’s Chief of Staff. Cowan, known as a mentor to young Black lawyers, played a pivotal role in the Governor’s administration as well as a bridge to the Black community of Boston. He was sworn into the Senate by Associate Justice Elena Kagen. Senator Cowan has never held elected office.
Twist of fate. The U.S. Constitution gives a Governor power to fill vacant Congressional seats. Governor Patrick chose Mo Cowan for the Senate seat vacated by John Kerry, now Secretary of State. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley selected Representative Tim Scott to replace Senator Jim DeMint, a Republican, who left the Senate to head the Heritage Foundation, a conservative “think tank.”
Tim Scott, endorsed by the Tea Party, is a conservative who rejected membership in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). He was praised by DeMint as a fiscal and social conservative. DeMint said, “I can walk away from the Senate knowing that someone is in this seat that is better than I am that will carry the voice of opportunity conservatism to the whole country in a way that I couldn’t do.”
There have been six previous African Americans in the Senate. Only Blanche Bruce (1875-1881), Edward Brooke (1967-1979), and Carol Moseley Braun (1993-1999) served full terms. As interim Senators, Cowan has five months in Congress. He is not seeking election to a full term. Scott is running for a full term in 2014.
Senator Scott said, “My campaign was never about race.” However, in 1870, when Hiram Revels, a Republican, from Mississippi, became the first African American in the U.S. Senate, he began a political legacy. Now, Senator Scott and Senator Cowan are a part of that evolving legacy.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present,” and a journalist covering the U.S. Supreme Court. @GBrowneMa