Black Excellence: Carol Moseley Braun
Carol Moseley Braun, who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from UIC in 1969, is known for her over three decades of trailblazing public service.
Moseley Braun is the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate, where she earned a reputation as a champion of women’s rights and civil rights. The groundbreaking victory also led to her status as the first Black U.S. Senator from the Democratic Party, the first woman to defeat an incumbent U.S. Senator in an election and the first female U.S. Senator from Illinois. President Bill Clinton appointed her the U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa in 1999.
After graduating from the University of Chicago law school in 1972, Moseley Braun was assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. In 1978, she was elected to the Illinois General Assembly as a State Representative, a position she held for a decade, and was Cook County Recorder of Deeds from 1988 to 1992.
Tariq El-Amin 00:01
Welcome to “Black Excellence” at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin.
Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King 00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.
Clips from 1995 movie “Panther” 00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here?
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information.
Aisha El-Amin 00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin.
Tariq El-Amin 00:29
Welcome to “Black Excellence.”
Aisha El-Amin 0:32
Welcome to the University of Illinois’ Black Excellence podcast sponsored by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement in partnership with the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Strategic Marketing and Communications. I’m your host, Dr. Aisha El-Amin, and I serve as UIC’s associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging. UIC’s Black Excellence podcast initiated in Black History Month 2022. And we started with the 28 days of Black Excellence, which highlighted the history and legacy of exceptional Black faculty, students and staff that call UIC home. So during this month, we talked to graduates from all walks of life from entrepreneurs to politicians.
And so today I have the absolute honor to introduce Senator Carol Moseley Braun, who was a political science major and graduated in 1969 from UIC. I think when I just say your name, everybody knows, but I will, I will just lay out a few things as the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate, as the first Black U.S. Senator from the Democratic Party, as the first female U.S. Senator. And I mean, we could just keep going on and on just the amount of, there was no Barack, before you, right? There was, I mean, you paved the way for so many things to happen for Black folks in the political sphere. I remember growing up in Chicago, and my mom just praising you and talking about you and wanting to do our hair like you. I mean, you had such an impact on so many different fields. And so if we could just, you know, hear from you. Starting with your early days, even before UIC was even a glimmer in your eye, what what did that look like? What were some of those formative lessons that you learned? Or things that you went through that you could share with us?
Carol Moseley Braun 2:24
Well, you know, I think that Dr. El-Amin, first of all, thank you for the complimentary introduction. That was lovely. And I’m very much appreciated. I have to tell you, though, I normally go by Ambassador, just because that was the nicest job, and everybody’s nice to you, when you’re Ambassador.
Aisha El-Amin 2:39
Ambassador, it is.
Carol Moseley Braun 2:40
When you’re doing that, they’re nice to you. But to answer your question directly, early on, I think it was a function of curiosity. And my parents, particularly my mother and my father. Anyway, they encouraged me to be courageous, and just to go for whatever it was, they gave me no limitations. And I think that was the most important thing. They didn’t tell me there was something I couldn’t do, because of my race or my gender, but encouraged me to do what I do and what struck me as important. And that’s what I proceeded to do. And when you’re a curious person, when you start off with curiosity, and you want to explore lots of different things, and that’s really what happened. That’s how my path got laid out. And I was just curious about the world around me. And that gave rise to… I did not know I was going to be in politics at all, even though I studied political science. I studied political science in large part because Dr. Twiley Barker was there at the university. And he was, he was such a role model. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. And, and so I wanted to do well by him. And so that was how I got into political science. But other than Dr. Barker. I guess Dick Simpson was, actually I was in the first class Dick Simpson taught.
Aisha El-Amin 4:04
Carol Moseley Braun 4:06
He was just recently back from Africa, I guess he had been in the Peace Corps or something like that. And so it kind of came together for me. And you mentioned all those firsts, I mean, the other thing about that, is that I didn’t set out to be the first. It’s just the times were such that the doors have been closed, that people will look like me for so long, that when I finally came through them, it made me first in both those cases. I mean, of the 1,000 I hope I get this number, I always get this number wrong. But anyway, of the 1,809 United States senators, when I got elected, I was 1,807. So that’s why I was the first because there had not been that many senators, and certainly no women and women of color at all. And so you know, breaking through that barrier, just came as a as a natural kind of step. And quite frankly, I’m going to digress here for a second, I’m feeling very vindicated these days because one of the reasons the main reasons motivation for me to run for the Senate was that I… Thurgood Marshall had made my life path possible. And he was replaced by Clarence Thomas. I was so incensed by this. And I talked with our incumbent Democratic senator, he just did not get it, that it was a slap in the face of anybody who had been involved with civil rights, that, that Clarence Thomas was no, could not fill Thurgood Marshall’s shoes by any means. And if that was going to be the only Black seat on the Supreme Court, then they need to do better. And he can’t, he just did not understand. And so, like I said of late, I felt very vindicated about that, about that aspect of it. Everybody, people talk about it, that it was response to sexual harassment and Anita Hill. It really wasn’t, because remember they had a hiatus in the confirmation hearings. And I had already launched my campaign because I was infuriated about the Clarence Thomas appointment. I mean, that was really, and so I feel very vindicated these days. So…
Aisha El-Amin 6:12
You beat the incumbent. And you know, like, so, which was huge. And I know you grew up in Chicago, right. You went to both public and parochial schools in Chicago. So, you know, you had a very, very deep understanding of what people kind of were going through. I know, in ’78 in the Illinois House of Reps, again, another first African American woman to serve as the assistant majority leader in that space. But you were called the champion for liberal, you know, for liberal causes. And so, tell me some of the things that you championed for? I mean, I know about some of them with, you know, with the death sentence, and but what are some of those things that are close to your heart, as we continue to fight for so many things today?
Carol Moseley Braun 7:05
Well, you mentioned death penalty, but to but to go on, and to talk about the, again, the thing that doesn’t get talked about in American politics, unfortunately, is class. And that gets left out of the conversation. Although obviously, it’s a very, very important dynamic in everything. And so when you, the value of diversity is that you bring different perspectives, different visions of what of the world to bear on policymaking. And then in a democracy, that’s what you’re supposed to reach for. That’s supposed to be the goal is to bring as many voices together as you can to help make better policy. So one of the things that really strikes me is that coming from a middle-class background, I knew people who were poor, and who were on public aid, and I knew people who were wealthy. And what I couldn’t understand was why the wealthy ones were trying, had prohibited people who were getting public aid from getting a college education. This did not make sense to me, at all. And so one of the things I’m very proud of is that I was able to pass legislation to get rid of that prohibition. I was able to pass legislation to lift up poor people, which to me, was central to my being there. It’s like, okay, if I’m, if I don’t do this, then who will? I mean that’s kind of the raison d’etre of my being here is to be able to lift up voices that would not be otherwise heard. So those were, and education.
Education had been had been central for me. And so I mean, I have been able to do what I did, because I got educated. And I give UIC a lot of credit for that to be honest. I could digress and tell you the backstory on that one. But anyway, because I’d been able to get access to a quality education, both at the undergraduate level and as well as the graduate level, you know it made my last life path possible. It would not have been possible without all that education. If even if it was just as imprimatur in saying this, you know, she can walk and chew gum at the same time. And, you know, whatever, whatever the other people took from it. The fact that I had, I was so credentialed kept me from being relegated, to… from being silenced, on the grounds that I didn’t know what I was talking about or I couldn’t know what I was talking about. And so education was obviously very critical. And again, back to Thurgood Marshall, had it not been for Thurgood Marshall, and the Warren Court and Brown versus Board of Education, none of this would have been possible for me. But it turns out it was and that’s how it was how they come through the ranks and to be the first that you just named.
Aisha El-Amin 9:41
Wow. Now, so I’m going to ask you to digress. You say UIC was an important part of that journey. Can you talk a little bit about that? And why that was.
Carol Moseley Braun 9:53
I’m happy to do so. Because I’ve actually started downstate, and I started downstate. I was the only black girl in the entire dorm, and in fact, it right? I mean, I’m telling my age when I tell some of these stories. And my best friend was this cow that came up to the window all the time. This cow would come, I was on the first floor, and this cow come up to my window. And I made friends with the cow. And so I think because I was feeding it [laughing] so just about every day, and so I learned a lot from I mean, but UIC downstate for me or, University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana was not a very receptive environment, it was not a safe space for somebody like me at all.
And so I mean, I even had a roommate, one of my roommates invited me to stay, come and spend the weekend with her in her house. And she said, “And my father will defend you regardless.” I’m going, “Why would your, father Why would you have to say this?” I was confused what she was talking about. Turned out, there was a sundown law in her town that said, no black people after sundown. And I’d never heard of such a thing. So I declined the invitation, I said, “Thank you very much, I’ll go home this weekend.” But it was that kind of situation, and Champaign Urbana. I mean, there had been blacks at Champaign Urbana before me. But I didn’t find it to be welcoming, I didn’t find to be a safe space, I didn’t find it to be encouraging of my getting an education.
And, and so then, so when I got sick with mono in those days, and came home. And when I came home, it was like, okay, maybe I just won’t go to college at all. And so I took a job. And actually, the job paid a very healthy salary. But it was, again, the times, right? The times dictate our lives as much as anything else. So I wound up taking a job at Chicago Housing Authority, and the riots broke out that summer. And so I’ll never forget it, as long as I live, standing up against one of those smokestacks with a hard hat on with my instructions, were to go tell my tenants to please don’t come out because there’s a riot going on, and I’m hearing gunshots “Pew! Pew!” [laughter] “I can’t do this.”
So that was when I said, I’ve got to find a college that will take me and I’m about to go back to school and have a different career path in this. So that was, that was how I wound up at UIC, because they just opened, and it was a brand new school. And they just come over from the pier. I never went there, but they just come over from Navy Pier. And so it was a lovely, lovely environment. And quite frankly, it started everything for me.
Aisha El-Amin 12:40
Wow, what a rich history and story there. I mean, from that I’m getting all your resilience, which we already know, because being the first, although, you know, time dictates it, we know what that looks like and what you go through when you’re breaking ceilings, right? You’re breaking barriers that have not been broken before. And so there’s a lot of strength and resilience that we already know that you have because of that. But this story just adds to that like, you’re like, “I’m going somewhere.” I understand that. So what would you give for young aspiring public servants, like as pieces of advice, to help them kind of along their pathway.
Carol Moseley Braun 13:24
I think to understand that it’s not about you. It is about public service. And it’s about serving the community, serving other people. You got to reach into wherever it is in your makeup, wherever the selflessness lies, you got to reach into that, because you A.) are not going to make the kind of money that people will make who are in the private sector. I mean, the venture capitalists made a lot more money than I did. So you’re not gonna make the money. You’re not gonna have the private life. You’re gonna have to work hard. But again, if you recognize and keep your eye on the prize, that the prize is not about you. It really is about uplifting others, and uplifting the community as a whole. And if that’s your guiding light then you will be resilient because too much is at stake for you just give up. And although quite frankly, I really have come close in my time. I mean, it got so rough, I talked about not wanting to be called senator. There were times when I was so beleaguered just like, “Why am I doing this to myself?” You know, I just, “This is ridiculous. I’m gonna go home and just have a nice…” I’m a lawyer by training, by the way, just to point that out. I could have gone into the practice of law, and just practice law and gone corporate or whatever, but I didn’t. I went into public service. And, and having done that, again, I recognize that that was the path that did not lead me to a whole lot of personal riches or anything like that. But at the same time, it was one that made sense to me and made me feel like I had done the right thing by my time on this planet and so… I just went on to a whole different riff. But the question was, what advice do I have? I think understanding that it is about public service, selflessness, kindness. And understanding that again, it’s not just about you, it really is about something bigger than you.
Aisha El-Amin 15:18
And before we close out, please tell us a little bit. So I know you ran for president, I know that you’re the ambassador for New Zealand. Tell us like how…you continue to be inspired to do more and expand yourself in different ways; how do you get that motivation? Where’s that from?
Carol Moseley Braun 15:42
Well it comes from frankly, again, back to the same old stuff I was telling you about. The presidential run, which I had to collapse the tent on that one before, you know, because it was I couldn’t raise a dime. But that came about because my little niece was, called me into a room. I had just come back from New Zealand, and not just come back, but come back from New Zealand. And she called me into her room. And she said, “Auntie Carol,” she had her social studies book open. “Auntie Carol, all the presidents are boys.” And I looked at I said, “Sweetie, girls can be president too.” And, and she was satisfied with that answer. So when I went to the kitchen, my brother said, “What’s the matter? I said, “I just lied to Claire.”
Aisha El-Amin 16:24
Carol Moseley Braun 16:25
Because I had lied to her, “Girls can be president, too.” Girls can’t be the president. We haven’t had one yet. And she’s now she’s she was 11 at the time. So now she’s grown up, right? So I’m hoping that that will happen in my lifetime, or at least in hers. So I’m not continuing, so I’m not still a liar, you know, but I lied to her on behalf of being a loving aunt. But it was not true. And so that was my motivation of throwing my hat in the ring. And becoming, as a presidential candidate because my brother said, “So what are you gonna do about having lied to Claire?” I said, “I’m gonna run for president.” [laughter]
It was logical. So, people look to me like I’d lost my mind, but I hadn’t. I was very intentional, and very deliberate about what I was doing. And it fit in with, frankly, with all the things that I had said I believed in, which was equality, equity, etcetera, for Black women.
Aisha El-Amin 17:27
But you know, what also fits into what was poured into you as a young person by your parents, you can do anything.
Carol Moseley Braun 17:35
Aisha El-Amin 17:36
And so, thank you, Ambassador Carol. I just, I could probably talk to you forever. You are truly an inspiration. And I’m hopeful that you do get to see a woman president in your lifetime because you’ve already put it out there. You know, you as many firsts that you have done, that is another to add to the list. You have paved the way. We would not be where we are without the hard work of you breaking those ceilings for so many people that have been able to now enter into those halls and sit at the table. So thank you for joining me today for UIC’s Black Excellence podcast, and thank you for what you continue to do for us.
Carol Moseley Braun 18:21
I appreciate it Dr. El-Amin. You will send me a copy of this right?
Aisha El-Amin 18:27
Tariq El-Amin 18:28
Thanks for joining us. Find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alums, faculty and staff at blackresources.uic.edu that’s blackresources.uic.edu.