Holy Cross College, in Worcester, Mass., was not exactly a bastion of racial tolerance in 1968. When Martin Luther King Jr. was felled by an assassin’s bullet, a white student rushed into a dorm study center, trained his gaze on the sole black student in the room and announced that “Martin Luther Coon” had just been shot.
Only a handful of black students attended Holy Cross — an elite, male, Irish-Catholic institution — at the time. That changed dramatically following King’s death, thanks largely to the brave efforts of one man: John Brooks, a 44-year-old, Boston-born Jesuit priest and theology professor who became dean in 1968 and president of the college two years later.
Thanks to Brooks’ aggressive recruitment drive, 19 black freshmen and one sophomore arrived at Holy Cross that fall. Many more would follow. In her new book Fraternity, Business Week reporter Diane Brady spotlights five of those early recruits. All were mentored by Brooks; all went on to stellar careers. And in the course of lengthy interviews for Fraternity, all five said the “Brooks factor” contributed to their success.
Yet Fraternity (a book starving for a subtitle) is not all easy uplift. Meticulously reported, it is a nuanced account of a turbulent time in the history of Holy Cross — and, indeed, the country at large. It tackles complex issues, including affirmative action, that are still being hotly debated today. In contrast to the tumultuous events she describes, Brady’s style is quiet and even-handed. But in the end, Fraternity is both revealing and moving.
The distinguished members of the “Holy Cross 5” were Edward Jones, acclaimed writer and winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Known World; Theodore Wells, defense attorney for clients such as Scooter Libby and Eliot Spitzer; Edward Jenkins, a politically active lawyer who played running back for the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins; Stanley Grayson, a former New York deputy mayor who is now CEO of an investment bank; and Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court justice.
Thomas became the most famous of the Holy Cross 5, and Brady is scrupulously fair to him in these pages (even if the future justice comes across as peckish and self-pitying). Brooks remained loyal to Thomas (and all the other early recruits) long after graduation. During Thomas’ rocky Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991, for example, the priest testified that the nominee was a man of “compassion, good judgment and intelligence.”