When the journalist Diane Brady finally heard back from Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas about an interview for her new book Fraternity, he told her that, in his view, the media “have been universally untrustworthy” and “often has its own script.” He was also sure to note that the reason he was finally agreeing to an interview was simply that, “Father Brooks asked me to do it.”
Reverend John Brooks asked Thomas, and a handful of other students, to do a lot of things. First, in 1968, the theology professor and eventual dean asked them to enroll at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. In the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, Brooks, a white academic, decided the school needed to aggressively court promising young black men. The surprising story of that project, and the people that those young men grew up to be, is the very engaging subject of Fraternity. And what the book lacks in refined language or eye-opening quotes, it more than makes up for with its engrossing narrative.
The story is almost too good to be true, an unlikely result of happenstance (or was it kismet?). Of the 20 black men Brooks recruited to Holy Cross, among them would be an eventual Supreme Court justice, star NFL wide receiver, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, high-profile Wall Street executive, and prominent defense attorney. And that’s not to mention any of the other Holy Cross men discussed, many of which also went on to greatness in their fields (among them Gil Hardy, a Yale Law grad who started his own firm before, sadly, dying in a scuba accident, and Art Martin, who went to Georgetown Law and became deputy attorney general of New Jersey). The faces of the five men on which Brady chooses to focus—Clarence Thomas, Eddie Jenkins, Edward P. Jones, Stan Grayson, and Ted Wells—adorn the book’s appealing, yearbook-style cover.
Brady opens her book with a compelling moment indeed, the kind of anecdote a journalist feels lucky to get. On the day of MLK’s assassination, she writes, Holy Cross sophomore Art Martin was studying in the dorm when a white student burst in and announced that “Martin Luther Coon” had been shot. It’s an alarming, fiery lead-in to a book about racial tension, education, and ambition. Her first chapter utilizes the same moment as a way to introduce the main five, but in these cases it isn’t as effective: each section ends with what the student in question decided, or how he felt, after the assassination, and certain phrases repeat themselves to the point of over-saturation: “Later in life, Thomas would refer back to King’s death as a turning point,” concludes an introductory section on Clarence Thomas. The Eddie Jenkins introduction ends similarly: “Years later… He would still cite King’s death as a turning point in his life.” Then, Stan Grayson’s section ends: “Years later, the investment banker… would still shake his head in sadness when thinking about King’s death.” The point is made a few too many times.
Brady again lapses into clichéd phrasing when first introducing Brooks: “In an era of black and white, Brooks was unafraid to embrace views that were gray,” she writes. But it’s possible that such glittering generalities are unavoidable with a story so implausibly inspiring. When you’ve finished Fraternity, you nearly feel surprised you haven’t seen Disney’s movie preview for it yet.
Elsewhere, Brady shows strength at the same task of describing individuals succinctly, but uniquely. When she first mentions the president of the college, Reverend Raymond Swords, Brady gives a holistic, vivid depiction of the man in two concise sentences: “Swords, a cerebral and sometimes aloof academic, had come to the president’s job reluctantly. Although he had little desire to be in the public spotlight, he wasn’t afraid to break with tradition when he felt it was necessary.” Indeed, one tradition Swords breaks with is the lack of racial diversity on campus. He gives Brooks a long financial leash with which to recruit the new students—and pay their way—and in so doing, the two of them help lead some students to believe “that the people running Holy Cross might feel as uncomfortable with its overwhelming whiteness” as others did.
Where the storytelling shines is not in any golden, revealing quotes (in fact, for the most part, Brady does not quote so often), but in dramatic moments described from multiple perspectives, and in the tender telling of friendships that were formed, such as when Jenkins and Wells meet on the football field: “They both looked relieved to see a fellow brother on the field… Wells, meanwhile, immediately liked Jenkins’s sense of humor… Jenkins came across as a man who assumed the world was full of friendships waiting to be formed.”
Similarly strong are the views—gained through careful reporting and, presumably, multiple conversations—of the personal emotional struggles that the new recruits were experiencing when they enrolled at Holy Cross. Wells missed his high school girlfriend, and as Brady puts it, “everywhere he turned, someone was preaching the merits of free love. But he couldn’t stop thinking about her.” Jones, as well, still harbored longings for a high school crush, and last year wrote in The New Yorker about the love letters he would send her:“I was alone in the wilderness in Worcester, away from Washington, D.C., my home, for the first time, and I needed some shack of a life.”
In the book’s most striking chapter, “The Walkout,” Brady recounts how a December 10, 1969 campus visit by General Electric recruiters was greeted with raucous student protest, in support of an ongoing GE worker strike. After the protest, instead of charging every student that participated (or none), the college brought academic charges against a small handful of people, four of them black students that had only been “peripheral players.” In response, the Black Student Union organized a walkout, threatening to quit the college. Reverend Brooks got them to come back, with tears in his eyes, and it is here that the wonderful photographs in the book, including one of Ted Wells announcing the walkout over campus radio, serve perfectly.
Fraternity tells a compelling story of justice, and trust. At the center of the narrative stands Brooks, who continued to be a mentor to the black students in their time at the school, and has remained one to this day, as Thomas’s words to Brady make clear. The adult lives of these men intersected in surprising ways. By way of example, just look at Thomas and Wells, who both made wonderful names for themselves in law, but in markedly different ways (one a staunch conservative, the other having served as general counsel to the New Jersey Democratic Party). To think that these two men not only went to college together, but found themselves in the same close-knit group of Brooks mentees, is something indeed.