The Holy Cross hero of the Civil Rights movement
Echoing loudly down the corridors of history, several events in 1968 and the years just before it rang incessantly in the ears of Americans, and African Americans in particular. The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 fostered both hope and frustration: hope for the future, and frustration that progress came so slowly. Then, in April 1968, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., coupled with the rise of the Black Power movement, lent urgency to the cause of civil rights. Along with concerns about the military draft, racial inequalities in the American education system stirred many of the nation’s largest and most vocal protests.
While debates over integration fueled the fires of protests on many college campuses, the evidence of integration at those same schools was indeed scant. In spite of the formal end to racial segregation in schools in 1954, most of the nation’s top colleges and universities remained strongholds of white privilege in 1968. In the fall of that year, however, a group of diverse African-American students—including Clarence Thomas, the novelist Edward P. Jones, the football player Eddie Jenkins and lawyers Ted Wells and Stanley Grayson—arrived at College of the Holy Cross, a small Jesuit college in central Massachusetts.
As journalist Diane Brady points out in Fraternity, her moving chronicle of the times and the lives of these men, such an event might not have happened if not for the passionate commitment of the Reverend John Brooks to King’s ideals of equality and social justice. The 44-year-old priest convinced leaders of the college that the school was missing out on an opportunity to help shape an ambitious generation of black men growing up in America, and he received the authority to recruit black students and offer them full scholarships.
Of course, racial prejudice and slurs didn’t disappear once Jones, Thomas and the others entered Holy Cross. Brady nicely weaves Brooks’ forceful support of the black students and their goals with the stories of the students themselves and their discomforts, their struggles and their eventual triumphs. As Brady offers heretofore unseen glimpses into the early lives of this fraternity of African Americans, she also brings to our attention for the first time an unsung hero of the civil rights movement.