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Fraternity and Diversity

Exclusive Book Excerpt: FRATERNITY

In a 2007 edition of Businessweek, writer Diane Brady told the story of the African American men who came to Holy Cross during the racially tense times of the late 1960s, each with the staunch encouragement of Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., '49 (then vice president and dean of the College). Fr. Brooks searched for promising African American high schoolers along the East Coast, and believed that these young men had the potential to succeed given the chance-the chance a Jesuit education from Holy Cross could provide.

The future President of the College selected wisely. Of the 20 students he mentored, several would go on to earn national and international acclaim: star litigator Theodore V. Wells Jr. '72; Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas '71; Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edward P. Jones '72; former New York City deputy mayor and investment banker Stanley E. Grayson '72 and Eddie J. Jenkins '72, the former Miami Dolphins running back during that team's perfect 1972 season.

In her article, Brady dubbed the group "The Holy Cross Fraternity," and now, she has revisited one of the most interesting chapters in Holy Cross history in her new book, Fraternity (Random House, January 2012).

The rich tale of Fraternity highlights the emotional bonds created among the students, their peers and especially between the future black leaders and their mentor and biggest supporter, Fr. Brooks. The book also examines the struggles of life for these African American men on a predominantly white campus. In this exclusive excerpt, Holy Cross Magazine presents Chapter Nine, "The Walkout," in which Brady describes the turmoil that followed one particular recruiting protest on campus-and how it almost tore down Fr. Brooks' dream.

 

CHAPTER 9:

THE WALKOUT

By late 1969, antiwar protests had become an unavoidable part of campus life. While some students took an active role in the ROTC and supported American efforts to defeat North Vietnam's communist forces, a growing number were angry and desperate for the United States to pull out. Nationwide, students were looking for any opportunity to make themselves heard on the war or on any matter of social injustice. Holy Cross was ripe terrain for anyone looking to protest the war. The College had a long- standing ROTC presence and was a popular recruiting spot for the military as well as companies with military contracts. The steady stream of recruitment visits gave antiwar protesters easy targets for demonstrations. In the fall of 1969, the Holy Cross chapter of Students for a Democratic Society [SDS] staged a "talkathon" when Marine recruiters came to campus. They chanted so loudly that the officers were unable to interview potential recruits. While tensions were high, most of the demonstrations passed without incident. During a march to protest an insurer's involvement in a controversial urban renewal project, police met the protesters at the company's headquarters in full riot gear with dogs and reinforcements. The police sent the students back to campus and they left without any real arguments. None of them wanted to go to jail or get into real trouble. Fr. Brooks firmly believed in the students' right to protest. Occasionally he even joined them. At one October event, a large group of students gathered on the library steps to call for a moratorium on U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Fr. Brooks gave a speech in support of the students' call, and then he and Swords [College President Rev. Raymond J. Swords, S.J.] held an impromptu mass for everyone who showed up. Minor campus confrontations continued throughout the fall of 1969. The SDS morphed into the Revolutionary Students Union (RSU), and the new group devoted much of its effort to going after the ROTC.

On December 1, the faculty senate took a vote to state that, among other things, "advocates of no cause will be permitted to deny freedom to anyone with whom they may disagree." Moreover, when it came to career recruiting, the campus "must remain open to the representatives of business firms and agencies of government which enjoy a legitimate place in American society." The RSU vowed to continue with its protests in spite of the vote. Next up was a General Electric Company recruitment visit on December 10. Protesters saw that as an opportunity to log yet another victory. The RSU announced that it planned to interrupt the GE visit in support of an ongoing strike by GE workers and to protest the company's role as a major defense contractor that manufactured products like the Minigun, a helicopter-mounted weapon that could fire up to four thousand rounds per minute. The RSU organizers approached Ted Wells and Art Martin to see if the Black Student Union wanted to join the protest, since GE had been accused of discriminating against African Americans. Wells was skeptical; he argued that the BSU should save its energy for battles that were more directly related to black issues, but he agreed to take the matter to a vote. The black students met on December 9 and, after some debate, agreed that the union should stay neutral. Anyone who wanted to join the protest would have to go on his own. The next morning, two GE recruiters arrived on campus. Holy Cross officials met them in the parking lot and took them straight to Room 320 of Hogan Hall. Within half an hour, a few dozen students had gathered to interrupt the job interviews. When the first senior tried to enter the room for an interview, he was turned away by a chain of interlocked arms. The same thing happened for two other students, who left amid a chorus of voices chanting "Workers, yes! GE, no!" Don McClain, the dean of students, was livid. He stood before the crowd and vowed to take the matter to the College Judicial Board for further action if the protesters didn't disband. When the students ignored him, McClain, frustrated, asked the recruiters to leave.

Within an hour, John Shay, the vice president for student affairs, read a statement on behalf of the College, noting that "the students who participated in [the] obstruction of the General Electric Company's career counseling appointment did so with the full knowledge that such obstruction was in direct defiance of an explicitly stated College policy on demonstrations." He added that anyone charged would have their cases heard before the College Judicial Board, which would have the authority to suspend or expel them. Later that day, members of McClain's staff made what they later called a "visual identification" of sixteen students out of the fifty-four who had been at the demonstration. They put the names of the identified protesters on a list of students to be charged with violating College rules. Most of the students on the list were activist organizers who had made a name for themselves at Holy Cross. Four of the sixteen identified students were black. They weren't regular protesters; they were merely, as McClain put it, "highly identifiable." There had been five black students in total at the demonstration. Ted Wells organized an emergency BSU executive meeting that evening when he learned about the outcome of the demonstration. Wells thought the charges were racist, pure and simple. At the meeting Art Martin was visibly exasperated, and furious with the black protesters whose involvement was forcing the BSU to take a drastic stance. He described them as "badasses" and argued that it was their own fault if they were expelled, since the BSU had formally declined to participate in the protests. But he eventually agreed with Wells; the collective insult was too great to ignore. Clarence Thomas also felt torn. The school had set up a law, he argued, and these men had blatantly broken it. Still, he added, fair was fair, and in a crowd of mostly white men, the fact that it was easier to pick out the people with dark complexions didn't make it right. Thomas himself had contemplated going down to the demonstration. He shuddered to think that it could have been him- likely would have been him- about to face the judicial board if he had acted on his whim; this time he had ignored his usual instincts to oppose whatever stance Wells and the BSU put forward. In the end, all the men agreed that the College's behavior was unacceptable and racist. The board would have to drop all charges against the black men, or else the BSU would take action. None of them was willing to contemplate what kind of action they would take; they hoped that the College would understand the BSU's position and agree to its demands. They decided to appoint a spokesman who would represent the black protesters before the judicial board. Each of the sixteen students would be making his individual case for why he shouldn't be suspended or expelled. It would be hard for any of them to argue that they didn't know they were breaking the rules, but the BSU wanted to make this a formal issue about race. Wells was passionate about how wronged the men were, and the BSU members agreed that nobody was better than Wells when it came to presenting a persuasive argument, not even Clarence Thomas. The accused students agreed to have Wells speak on their behalf.

The next morning, on December 11, Ted Wells left a message for Fr. Brooks, asking to meet before the 12:30 p.m. hearing. He believed the dean would share their outrage. Brooks didn't get the message in time, so Wells went to the meeting a half hour before it began and asked the board chairman, a larger-than-life chemistry professor named Michael McGrath, if he could represent the black students. A surprised McGrath turned to the four accused students to ask if they really thought that having another student explain their actions would help their case, and if they were sure they didn't want to speak up for themselves. The men nodded.

Wells immediately tried to shift the discussion away from the legality of the demonstrations. What they were there to talk about, he asserted, was "a much higher issue- racism." There had been 54 students at the demonstration, including five who were black. Of the 16 who were singled out for punishment, though, a dozen were white and four were black. In other words, Wells noted, 20 percent of the white demonstrators were charged while 80 percent of the blacks were. "As spokesman for the Holy Cross BSU, I charge that this school has exhibited racist attitudes in the naming of a grossly disproportionate number of blacks to stand trial in this case," he told the room. Moreover, Wells noted that he was standing before a judicial board that was entirely white and, in all probability, unlikely to appreciate the inherent racism in how the students were charged. The board, which consisted of one administrator, six professors, and three students, was silent after Wells's speech. Then they began to ask questions: Why were the black students at the protest? What were they doing during the demonstration? Were they members of the RSU? Weren't they standing near the door, where they would have been easy to identify-black or white? Did they want to have their cases looked at individually, so they could present extenuating circumstances, or did they want to be heard as a group? Each of the men responded that they wanted to be heard as a group. McGrath asked them again: Were they sure they wanted to stick with the group? They did. Several of the white students then jumped to their own defense, claiming that they had been charged only because of their involvement with the RSU and because they had been willing to give their names. The board then began its deliberations. In an account later presented by McGrath, he noted that the members agreed that the rules had been broken, and debated whether the RSU itself had a right to exist, given its history of trampling on the rights of others. The fate of the black students was less clear. One member pointed out that just because they had been identified in higher numbers than the whites didn't mean they weren't subject to the same rules. But the fact that they had been singled out made some members uncomfortable, as did Ted Wells's warning that if amnesty weren't granted to the four men, the BSU would have "no alternative except to take action commensurate with the situation at hand."

Wells was worried when he walked out of the hearing. Back at the dorm he rounded up every member of the BSU to enlist their help in contacting all 64 black men on campus. Stan Grayson was away at a basketball game and couldn't be reached, and a few others were missing as well.

When the BSU met that night, the fury in the room was palpable. Wells wasn't optimistic about what the judicial board would decide. If its members didn't immediately see the racism of the situation, he believed, they probably never would. The men began to yell out suggestions. "Let's blow something up," said one.

"Let's occupy a building."

"Let's march into Swords's office, man!"

Thomas spoke calmly over the fray. "Let's just leave."

The men grew quiet. Thomas repeated himself: "Let's just leave." If the College didn't want them there, he argued, then should they stay? There was no power in staging a sit- in, or marching to the president's office. But if they all got up and walked out together, that would really say something.


Up next: The decision to leave, and what it meant for the BSU students and the College.