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A story of 65 black students and one Catholic college

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Members of the Black Student Union of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., walk out in protest in 1969. (Courtesy of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette)

For better and, originally, for worse, Martin Luther King Day has a particular resonance at the Jesuits’ College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. The worst begins in the opening lines of Diane Brady’s Fraternity when, on April 4, 1968, “a white student ran [into the common room] and announced ‘Martin Luther Coon’ had been shot. ... There was an uncomfortable silence in the room as the other students all turned to stare, curious to see how the black student was going to react [to the slur].”

The best began almost immediately afterward. A young theology professor, Jesuit Fr. John E. Brooks, persuaded college president Jesuit Fr. Raymond J. Swords to allow him to travel down the East Coast to recruit scholastically qualified African-American students to come to Holy Cross on scholarships. Five of those 65 black students form the basis of Brady’s book: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward P. Jones; Miami Dolphins running back Eddie Jenkins, 1973 Super Bowl victor and later an activist lawyer; Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas; leading defense lawyer Thomas Wells; and former New York Deputy Mayor Stanley Grayson.

FRATERNITY
By Diane Brady
Published by Spiegel & Grau, $25

If that were not drama enough for a small, predominantly white Catholic liberal arts college, there was more ahead. In a 1969 college anti-Vietnam War protest, when college authorities singled out four black students as protesters, future lawyer Wells charged “racism”: that only 20 percent of the protesting white students were being charged, but 80 percent of the black students.

When the college authorities demurred, the entire Black Student Union, 65 students, placed their futures on the line and quit the school.

Deservedly, Brady’s book, which reveals what happens next, could be one of the publishing successes of the season.

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To flesh out the back story, NCR interviewed the now 88-year-old Brooks, later Holy Cross president from 1970 to 1994. Two current Holy Cross students and members of the Black Student Union, Adrienne Shaw and Shawn Johnson, were asked to review the book for NCR and reflect on their own experience at the college (see below).






To finish the battles they began

Reviewed by SHAWN JOHNSON

Knowing that someone has your back -- no matter what -- is a phenomenal feeling. In Fraternity by Diane Brady, the camaraderie that the African-American students had is something that Holy Cross has not had since and is searching for today. The willingness Black Student Union members showed in 1969, when standing up for the four African-American students who got in trouble, is amazing. In the book, the Black Student Union walkout becomes the only plausible way to make their point. They put their own careers on the line to show that the greater good was more important than the individual good.

While the book doesn’t allow you to journey with all the African-American male students, the five selected are remarkable. The glimpse of their undergraduate years is intriguing. Seeing the battles that they had to endure, and how they never gave up despite things never going in their favor, is captivating. The five had a remarkable four years at the college and didn’t let a moment go to waste.

Reading about future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas always had me on the edge. At times it seemed liked he was full throttle with the Black Student Union mission, at others that he just went along because he felt like he had too. Playing the role of devil’s advocate was something that the group needed, and Thomas provided that. But at times I couldn’t tell if he was being devil’s advocate or if he really didn’t care about the group.

In the book you get a chance to appreciate all the groundwork that was set for a person like me to be here today. It gave me a greater appreciation of the Black Student Union and what it means to be a member. I had the opportunity to see how the Black Student Union was integral to changing the climate at the College of the Holy Cross. These men realized that the college was not addressing the issues that plagued them as black men, so they put themselves on the college agenda and, with the help of Jesuit Fr. John Brooks, accomplished a lot.

Fraternity’s five men had a desire and hunger that many people today wish they could duplicate. At any given point, any of the five could have just caved and gone along with the protocol that existed at the time. By no stretch of the imagination was the college a place where African Americans could feel comfortable. Had these men not had that desire and hunger to change the environment, I don’t know what Holy Cross would look like today.

As they laid the foundation for the Black Student Union, they set the stage for groups such as the Brother-to-Brother Committee for black and Latino males. Not all the issues of equality and opportunity that the Fraternity five were fighting for have been achieved yet -- and the Brother-to-Brother Committee is determined to finish the job.

[Shawn Johnson, a native of Boston, is a College of the Holy Cross junior double-majoring in English and Africana Studies. After graduation he hopes to start a nonprofit organization in Boston to help black and Latino males with employment while furthering their education.]

Tale ignites a sense of pride

Reviewed by ADRIENNE C. SHAW

My comfort zone has been challenged. At this very moment I feel infuriated with my response to the notion that black pride has to be provoked. It is a notion that arises from reading Diane Brady’s book, Fraternity.

At a Black Student Union meeting questions filled the air: What do you mean you’re proud to be black? If you’re proud to be black then that means you were initially ashamed of it. What is black pride? What internal factors are employed to cause individuals who humbly embrace the burden of the black experience to suddenly muster up enough courage and strength to declare their allegiance to black pride?

This sort of courageous discussion is not held often, if at all, at predominantly white academic institutions.

It is the discussion, in effect, similar to that provoked by the College of the Holy Cross black male students who, 42 years ago, faced with a perpetuation of on-campus social injustice, courageously quit. Fraternity ignited my sense of pride.

It highlighted other realities students of color achieved at the institution I attend: culturally sensitive changes to the school song’s lyrics; conquering roommate challenges that were racially charged; beginning to feel comfortable wearing attire that exhibits black pride.

Each character in Fraternity depicted some facet of my Holy Cross experience. While reading it, I reflected on my initial culture shock, and how it felt trying to find my niche at the college.

The various characters depicted in Fraternity seemed to experience a number of paradoxical issues that I could definitely relate to. I found long-ago student Arthur Martin’s experience the most similar to mine. He, along with Clarence Thomas and Ted Wells, laid the foundation for the Black Student Union. I felt even more honored to be co-chair of an organization founded in part to give the black students a sense of identity among the predominantly white majority. Brady mentions, “Wells liked Martin’s sense of energy and his conviction that the group of black men should make their presence felt on campus.” Their first meeting set the tone for the need for social change on campus. Students who were actively involved held debates on the Vietnam draft, the lack of black faculty, and the discrimination behind internship recruiters.

These are echoes, too, of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.

In combination, that legacy, the work of the Black Student Union, and the aspirations of students of color at Holy Cross points to the underlying social inequality that we still experience today in America. After delving into this dialogue, what is the next step? Identifying and prioritizing key social issues and injustices, networking with like-minded others and, finally, taking action.

[Adrienne C. Shaw, born and raised in Stone Mountain, Ga., is a College of the Holy Cross senior majoring in biology/premedicine with a minor in studio art. After graduation she plans to pursue a graduate degree in public health, prior to applying to dental school.]

Stories in this series

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