In the spring of 1968, a young black student-athlete from Queens named Eddie Jenkins was invited to the Holy Cross campus on a recruitment drive. It was his second visit. Though Jenkins was being courted for the school’s football team, this time he quickly realized there was a much bigger initiative at work. And he liked what he saw.
“He found it heartening,’’ writes Diane Brady in “Fraternity,’’ “that the people running Holy Cross might feel as uncomfortable with its overwhelming whiteness as he did.’’
In the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the college, led by a progressive-thinking faculty member named Father John Brooks, was hoping to attract a few promising young African-American students to Worcester. Brady’s book tells a compelling story about a fractious moment in American history and the extraordinary efforts of one institution - one man, really - to make amends.
Jenkins accepted, as did several other young black men (the school had yet to admit women) with leadership potential. The new recruits turned out to be a remarkable bunch: In addition to Jenkins, who played on the Miami Dolphins undefeated 1972 team before becoming a state official and youth mentor in Massachusetts, the students included a future Pulitzer Prize winner, a deputy mayor of New York City, and a Supreme Court justice.
Curiously, the future justice, Clarence Thomas, earned a prophetic nickname while growing up under his grandparents’ care in Savannah, Ga. For his skills on the basketball court, his friends called him “Cousy.’’ Bob Cousy, of course, is the former Holy Cross All-American who went on to greatness with the Celtics.
The author reports that Thomas displayed some of the same tendencies at Holy Cross that have marked his tenure on the Supreme Court. He spoke infrequently in class, and in meetings of the newly formed Black Student Union he preferred to play devil’s advocate: “Rarely did Thomas himself ever suggest an idea; he merely liked to shoot them down,’’ she writes.
Yet Thomas was clearly a leader, as were several of his peers in the Class of 1972. The opportunities being afforded a new generation of black Americans were far greater than those of their fathers and grandfathers, but they would also be tested in new ways. “They were being handed a chance to fail without necessarily being given all the support they needed to succeed,’’ Brady writes.
At Holy Cross, Brooks was determined to help the new students succeed, taking a principled stand on their behalf time and again. When four black undergrads were identified for punishment after a protest on campus - unlike their white counterparts, most of whom were not named, the black kids were “highly identifiable,’’ as the dean of students put it - the Black Student Union staged a widely publicized walkout. It was Brooks who convinced the administration to drop the charges.
Sometimes white people “couldn’t even see their own bias,’’ Brooks told a Worcester reporter, “never mind overcome it.’’
Though Brady evidently spoke with most of her main subjects, she uses few direct quotes from the graduates or Rev. Brooks (who, now in his 80s, is the college’s president emeritus). That editorial decision gives the book a certain narrative thrust, as she recounts the protests and obstacles and other events of the students’ education. It also, however, creates a bit of distance.
Sometimes the events of the late 1960s and early 1970s seem like ancient history; at others, they seem like yesterday. The black men of Holy Cross’s Class of ’72 did not have “the luxury of learning just for the sake of learning,’’ as Ted Wells, who went on to become a highly regarded trial lawyer, told a forum audience after the walkout.
They were in college to learn the skills to “destroy this sick society’’ and, they hoped, replace it with one dedicated to liberty and justice for all.
James Sullivan, author of “The Hardest Working Man’’ and other books, can be reached at email@example.com.