The future éclat of these young recruits was often tough to discern back in 1968. Father Brooks had to pressure the admission committee to overlook the mediocre grades of Edward Jones, for one, whose “quiet intensity” had impressed the priest. Jones, he had noticed, forever seemed to be reading — despite the fact that his mother had never learned to read or write.
Brooks fought battles on a number of other fronts as well. Faculty members and well-heeled alumni loudly questioned his crusade, but he refused to back down. When the black students voted to create a “black corridor” in a dorm so they could live together, Brooks was at first opposed; recognizing their need for a supportive environment, however, he relented — then successfully argued their case before the president of the college.
Brooks’s steepest challenge came in 1969, when opposition to the Vietnam War was running high on college campuses across the country. Five black students, as well as a number of whites, were suspended from Holy Cross after they disrupted a recruiting visit by General Electric. (GE was targeted because it was a major defense contractor and also because its workers were on strike.)
Though initially neutral on the protest, the members of the Black Student Union voted to drop out of school, en masse, unless the black students were reinstated. The facts were on their side, and they argued them dispassionately but powerfully: Whereas 80 percent of the black protesters had been charged, only 20 percent of the white protesters had been. With the academic careers of his recruits on the line, Brooks stood up and got the suspension overturned, averting a walkout.
Father Brooks, still active today at 88, played down his role in helping to shape and inspire those early black recruits. “They were the pioneers,” he remarked toward the end of Fraternity. “These men took the risks, not me. … They took a chance on us.”
That’s true, although Brooks is being modest. It’s also true that some, if not all, of these men would have succeeded without his auspices. But that doesn’t diminish his achievement. Among its many virtues, Fraternity demonstrates how one courageous individual, operating largely on his own, can advance the cause of social justice.
Evelyn Renold is a writer and editor in New York.
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