Father Brooks and the Holy Cross Experiment

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What if I told you that a future Supreme Court Justice (Clarence Thomas), one of the leading trial attorneys in U.S. history (Ted Wells), a Super Bowl champion with the undefeated Miami Dolphins (Eddie Jenkins), a former New York City Deputy Mayor and leading Wall Street investment banker (Stan Grayson) and a Pulitzer Prize winner (Ed Jones) all attended the same college? What if I told you they were all at the college at the same time? What if I told you they were all African American and represented only one percent of the campus population at the time?

“Fraternity,” by Diane Brady, chronicles the first significant integration of College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., by 20 black men in the fall of 1968. This unconventional effort was spearheaded by Jesuit Father John Brooks, then a theology professor (and future president) at the college. Father Brooks’ actions exemplify how the resilient efforts of one individual, applying his faith in a practical manner, can have a monumental impact on others, as well as history.

After the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968, Father Brooks sought to recruit more black students to Holy Cross. He literally drove up and down the East Coast seeking recruits. Of the 20 that ultimately enrolled, the five mentioned above have achieved extraordinary prominence. What they will all tell you is the uniqueness of their experience was rooted in their friendship with one another, and with Father Brooks.

Ms. Brady’s book follows the five men and their relationship with Father Brooks as they navigate their Holy Cross experience. As you may surmise, it wasn’t easy. The campus was not an inviting environment for black students during this time. Before their entry, there were never more than the five or six out of a population of more than 2,000 students.

Father Brooks understood the difficulty they would encounter and sought to assist in a variety of ways. Whether supplying them with a station wagon so they could visit other campuses with black student populations, facilitating the establishment of the Black Student Union or giving them a common living space on campus, Father Brooks was a constant and supportive presence in their lives during their time at Holy Cross. To this day, all the men are still close to one another and Father Brooks. I witnessed this bond first-hand.

I am a graduate of Holy Cross and a schoolmate of Stan, Ed, Ted and Eddie and my friendship with Stan, Ted and Eddie remains strong 41 years later. In 2007 I had the honor of co-chairing the Archdiocese of New York’s Pierre Toussaint Scholarship Dinner; Stan Grayson was an honoree. I called Father Brooks and asked him if he would come to New York to present Stan with his award. Without hesitation he said he would do anything “for his old friend Stan.”

Not only did Father Brooks come, but he brought the current Holy Cross president at the time, the chair of the board of trustees and several other alumni. As one alumnus stated, Diane Brady’s book could have been called “Community” which is indicative of the Holy Cross experience.

Holy Cross has gone from 1 percent minority enrollment in 1968, to 20-25 percent in 2012. This is the legacy left by Father Brooks and the men of ’68. As we reflect during this Lenten season and prepare ourselves for Easter, I’m reminded of Christ’s transfiguration as told to us in Mark 9:2-10. I would argue the College of the Holy Cross experienced its own transfiguration in no small part due to Father Brooks. His vision, fortitude and faith changed the landscape of the college and our nation.

Since graduating in 1975 I have always felt and still feel divinely blessed to have had the Holy Cross experience, to know Father Brooks and the extraordinary “men of 68.”

Ron Lawson is a parishioner of St. Charles Borromeo parish in Harlem.

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