Amid the anger, confusion, and chaos that reigned in the days following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, a white priest provided unforeseen direction for a group of young black men. With riots breaking out across the country, Father John Brooks set out to recruit black students to the College of the Holy Cross, an all-male Irish Catholic institution in Worcester, Massachusetts. A theology professor at the time, Brooks had previously been involved in progressive recruitment efforts that yielded little results. He decided the time for discussion and planning was over.
With an enrollment of approximately 2,200 students, Holy Cross typically admitted two black students per year and had eight black students in April 1968. Wanting to bolster that number as soon as possible, Brooks persuaded the president of Holy Cross to authorize Brooks to offer scholarships on the spot to qualified black students, bypassing the lengthy admissions process. As a result, 20 black students entered Holy Cross in the fall of 1968 while Brooks assumed a new role as vice president for academic affairs and dean. Brooks became president of Holy Cross in 1970.
Brady focuses on five of those students and their relationships with Father Brooks and each other. The author draws in readers immediately by recounting where those figures were when King was killed and how that affected them. Brady deftly weaves the common threads of their stories through that event and their experiences on campus. On top of the experiences of adjusting to college life any incoming student has to make and issues associated with discrimination and racism, the specter of the Vietnam War and draft procedures loomed large for these young men.
Solidarity was important for these students even as they dealt with individual issues. Clarence Thomas found himself on a Catholic campus months after he left the seminary, which created problems at home. Ted Wells lost his desire to play football because he felt it detracted too much from his studies. Eddie Jenkins, later drafted by the Miami Dolphins, lost the majority of his first varsity football season after a hepatitis outbreak decimated the team. Basketball player Stan Grayson’s career came to an abrupt end when he suffered a knee injury. Ed Jones struggled as a math major before finding his calling as a writer and switching to English. Through it all, the students learned to lean on Father Brooks and each other.
Long before embarking on successful and influential careers, these men had to navigate campus life at Holy Cross. The formation of a Black Student Union was a key step, and shortly thereafter the BSU lobbied for and was granted a black corridor among student housing. Thomas was the lone dissenter on the issue of a black corridor, although some BSU members avoided the vote. Despite his dissension, Thomas decided to live in the black corridor in a sign of solidarity and later viewed the corridor as a de facto fraternity.
That solidarity was most evident in late 1969 when all but three or four of the 68 black students (41 enrolled in 1969) threatened to drop out of Holy Cross because of what they deemed racist disciplinary action after a protest on campus that included black and white students. After a long few days of campus meetings in which Father Brooks advocated for the BSU position, the president of Holy Cross gave amnesty to all the students disciplined, and all the black students remained in school.
Although Father Brooks did not always agree with the viewpoints of the black students and as president could not grant all their demands, he always had understanding and compassion for how they felt. Through Father Brooks and the students he recruited to Holy Cross, Brady captures not only the events of tumultuous times, but also the breadth and depth of the emotions associated with them.
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