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.”
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.