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'Fraternity' inspired racial equality at Holy Cross

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 4/4/2012, 7:42 a.m.

Affirmative action has once again been thrust into the national spotlight. In 2008, Abigail Fisher, a young, white Texas resident, took the University of Texas to court, claiming she was denied admission on the basis of her race. Her case reached the Supreme Court this year.

Even though the Court upheld the practice of race-conscious admissions in 2003, more conservative justices sit on the bench now than nine years ago, a sign that the future of affirmative action may be in peril.

One of the Court’s staunchest opponents of affirmative action has been Clarence Thomas, who has invoked his own life experiences as a challenge to the practice. After graduating from College of the Holy Cross and Yale Law School — affirmative action played a role in his admission to both — Thomas set out to find a job. But, “one high-priced lawyer after another treated me dismissively … unsubtly suggesting that they doubted I was as smart as my grades indicated,” he wrote in his memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son.” “Now I knew what a law degree from Yale was worth when it bore the taint of racial preference. I was humiliated — and desperate. The snake had struck.”

While Thomas looks back at this experience with regret  — a view that will most likely lead him to again vote against the admissions policies that once helped him — “Fraternity,” a new book by Diane Brady, tells the story of affirmative action another way.

In 1968, just weeks after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, an intrepid white theology professor at Holy Cross drove around the country, trying to recruit African American men to his college. Father John Brooks shared King’s vision of racial equality, and felt that bringing more black students to Holy Cross would be his way of continuing the fight. Before then, Holy Cross only accepted two black students each year.

That fall, Brooks brought 20 African American students on full scholarship to the prestigious men’s college in Worcester, Mass., giving away $80,000 of the school’s $1 million endowment to do so. And that first cohort flourished. Among the entering class of 1968 were Eddie Jenkins, who went on to win a Super Bowl with the Miami Dolphins in the NFL’s only perfect season; Edward P. Jones, who later won a Pulitzer Prize in literature; Theodore Wells, now one of the most successful defense attorneys in the country who has represented former New York governor Eliot Spitzer and former vice presidential adviser Scooter Libby; Stanley Grayson, a Wall Street investment banker; and Clarence Thomas, who was accepted as a transfer student after he dropped out of a Catholic seminary in Missouri.

“It’s about the power of opportunity,” Brady said of “Fraternity,” noting that most of the men would not have been able to attend an elite college if it hadn’t been for Brooks. While the priest acted as a mentor to the students, and stood up for them when they asked the college for certain concessions — such as a van to drive off-campus to meet other black students, and the designation of a “black corridor” in one of the dorms — Brooks never lowered their academic standards.