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They are two of the most important men in American law: Clarence Thomas, arguably the most controversial member of the U.S. Supreme Court; and Theodore V. Wells Jr., the star litigator who is currently representing I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, on charges of lying in the Valerie Plamecia leak investigation. Thomas is a Republican; Wells, a lifelong Democrat. Both are African American, but Thomas famously condemns affirmative action while Wells vigorously supports it in his capacity as co-chair of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Board of Directors.
What binds them together is the experience they shared as students at the College of the Holy Cross and, in particular, the influence of the man who brought them there: the Reverend John E. Brooks. The men's bond with the Boston-born priest, now 83 and president emeritus, began almost four decades ago and remains strong to this day. "I love Father Brooks," says Thomas. "He's a great man." While Thomas "never liked school," the affection he feels for Brooks is so strong that he was willing to break a long-standing silence in the media to talk about him and the impact of that formative experience on his life. "Father Brooks realized we needed to be nurtured; that we were going to have unique problems," Thomas recalls.
The story of Brooks is important--and overlooked. A former academic dean who became president of the college in 1970, Brooks was by turns recruiter, mentor, negotiator, and friend to the 28 African American men who ventured to the Jesuit college in the largely white, industrial city of Worcester, Mass., during the racially tense fall of 1968. Brooks helped shape an exceptional group of overachievers. Along with Thomas and Wells, who was recently named 2006 Lawyer of the Year by the National Law Journal, this group includes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward P. Jones; investment banker Stanley E. Grayson, a former New York City Deputy Mayor who broke the color bar on Wall Street; and Eddie J. Jenkins, a Miami Dolphins running back during the team's 1972 perfect season who now chairs the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission. "I came to see Father Brooks as one of the greatest ambassadors of justice I've ever known," says Jenkins.
Brooks dared to single out black students for special attention in the belief that it wasn't enough simply to let them in the door. He went to inner-city schools to woo African Americans to Holy Cross, promising opportunities and scholarships but no academic breaks or special programs to ease the transition of the young men. "I was pretty confident that they were not moving into a friendly environment," says Brooks. What he gave, says Thomas, was time, respect, and the freedom to be different. In a move that would probably prompt criticism today, Brooks enabled the men to create an exclusive community with special privileges. And he constantly pushed them not only to meet but also to exceed the high academic standards of the school, helping to transform a group of talented students into confident leaders. "From a statistical perspective, it seems impossible," says Wells, of his classmates' success. "Father Brooks' mentoring had a lot to do with it. We learned from him, and he learned from us."
It was the tumultuous state of race relations, heightened by Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in April, 1968, that prompted Brooks to accelerate a recruiting drive for black students. "I thought it would benefit not just the African American students but the rest of Holy Cross as well," he says. "I wanted to open the doors to women, too." (Brooks was voted down on that, but he made coeducation his first initiative when he became president.) Jesuits, he argued, were supposed to educate leaders, and it was clear to him the pool of potential leaders was widening fast. That belief in the order's mission was what had helped attract the young physics student, born the eldest of four children in 1923 to a telephone company superintendent and homemaker, to the Jesuits in the first place.
Brooks was not alone at Holy Cross in his efforts to address racial issues. "There was a warmth toward social justice from the top in those years," recalls the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Still, Brooks says he had to focus on Catholic high schools largely because the secular schools wouldn't let him in. Edward P. Jones, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Known World, was impressed that anyone would care about a poor kid from Washington like him. "The fact that he had driven down from Massachusetts [to pick up Jones for a campus visit] told me something in a very quiet way," he says.
Up to that point, there had been no particular interest in bringing African Americans to the campus. Arthur Martin, who graduated in 1970, says he recalls one other black student in his freshman class of 660. "The word was Holy Cross could only handle two or three of us a year," he jokes. When King died, Brooks secured money for Martin and another black student to attend the funeral. He also got enough money from the college to offer full scholarships to every black student he and his colleagues later tried to recruit--although, as he puts it, "people weren't standing up, congratulating me for bringing black students in."
All of them came by different routes. Thomas had been on the path to priesthood at a Missouri seminary when King was shot. Already unsure of his calling, he quit after a white classmate gleefully reacted by saying he hoped "the S.O.B. died." A Franciscan nun suggested Thomas head to Holy Cross. Although worlds away from the dirt-poor Georgia village where he grew up, he packed up what he says was a deep reservoir of anger and bitterness and moved north to enroll as a sophomore. "I was 20 years old," Thomas says. "I had no place to go. I had no road map. I had nobody to talk to, nobody to give me advice."
Wells arrived at Holy Cross with a football scholarship and social savvy beyond his 18 years. He had grown up in Washington, raised mainly by a mother who worked as a clerk in the U.S. Navy Dept.'s mailroom. Having attended public schools where most students were black, Wells admits the thought of "going to an all-male, predominantly white, Jesuit college on a hill in Worcester, Mass., was daunting." Wells had other offers but liked the balance of sports and academics and, more important, bonded immediately with Jenkins and Grayson, a top basketball player, during a campus visit.
Even so, there were signs that obstacles lay ahead. Jenkins recalls a football coach cheerfully saying: "You nigros are really going to like it here." And Brooks, though personally impressed with the intelligence and discipline of the African American recruits, faced tough questions from alumni about whether the candidates had the credentials to get in. Some of the recruits also had their own doubts. On his SAT scores alone, which he recalls as an unimpressive 532 on math and 489 on English, or his solid but unspectacular showing in school, Jones fails to see how he could have gotten there. "Five years earlier, Holy Cross would not have chosen me," he says.
Brooks anticipated a high level of discomfort for the new arrivals, and he was right. Jones, although raised by an illiterate single mother in an all-black neighborhood, had naively expected to feel at home in what he had termed "the land of abolition." Instead there were constant looks and subtle rejections. He arrived to find his white roommate dashing around the residence, catching up with prep school friends. They never bonded. Says Jones: "His parents visited during the year, and he never brought them up to introduce them to me. Never." Another student asked: "Is it easier to get in here if you're colored?"
It didn't help, perhaps, that some people in the administration had tried to prepare for the arrival of black students by calling up potential roommates to ask if they "would mind rooming with a Negro." Recalls Grayson, "Nobody contacted me to ask if I would mind rooming with a white guy."
Recognizing the challenges of the environment, Brooks allowed the black students to single themselves out. When Wells came to ask for a black student corridor, Brooks agreed even though he felt it was a bad idea. He helped them get the top floor of Healy Hall--an important symbolic gesture, as the building was named for Bishop James A. Healy, the son of an Irish immigrant and a slave, who was valedictorian in the first Holy Cross class, in 1849. "Sometimes, it's better to let them do what they want and see if it works out," Brooks explains. Thomas, who voted against the idea at the newly established Black Students Union, admits that the corridor "was one of the few comfort zones you could find."
Living together fostered a strong sense of fraternity among the men. The leader was Wells, who had quickly dropped football to focus on his studies (the move didn't affect his scholarship). Brooks approved, believing it was more realistic to focus on a career that would tap his mental skills rather than his physical ones. (He also told basketball team captain Grayson: "You're not here because you play basketball.") The priest found himself spending a lot of time with Wells, talking about race issues, classes, and, as often as not, what the black students wanted on campus. "Ted always knew where he was going," says Brooks. "He was willing to put in the effort and the work to attain the goal."
Wells pushed those around him, and so did the others. "He was really so smart but thought of himself as an underachiever," says Jenkins, his former roommate. "I would go to bed at 1:00 in the morning before a test and he would say 'J, what are you doing?' 'Getting some sleep.' 'What do you think you'll get?' 'I don't know, maybe a B.' And he would say: 'How can you settle for a B when an A is still on the table?' "
In the comfort of the black corridor, the men felt free to be themselves. Jenkins, the star football player whose son Julian is now defensive end with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was the joker. "If Eddie was coming in to discuss an issue with you, he would be very friendly and open with an upbeat topic or a joke," says Brooks. "He wouldn't ever come in with a long face to tell you there was a problem." Jones tended to spend his Saturday afternoons immersed in a book instead of conversation. Grayson, who says he was the "Solomon-like one of the group"--or at least the tallest, at 6-ft.-4-in.--was the keeper of the van keys. They used it to get to mixers at other schools or visit Boston.
The enigma for many was Thomas. Jones says he was determined, even in the way he drove. Dubbed "Cous" after famed Boston Celtics player Bob Cousy because of his "mistaken view of his athletic ability," Grayson says, Thomas was known for his loud laugh and penchant for taking the opposite side of an argument. "You would say: 'The sky is blue,' and he would say: 'Actually, it's a blend of orange and gray," says Grayson. Thomas and Wells would go head-to-head on a number of issues--with Thomas often advocating falling in line with the rest of the school while Wells felt it better to challenge the rules and create something new. "It was the best theater in America," says Jenkins.
Brooks sensed early that Thomas had come with what he calls "emotional struggles." The priest spent a lot of time listening, and trying to direct him however he could. He helped find summer jobs for Thomas and his pal Gil Hardy, who later became a top lawyer before dying in a scuba accident. Brooks let them live in a house Holy Cross owned over the summer. He had made similar efforts to help other black students, even scraping together extra cash for future doctor Malcolm Joseph when the young man's parents could no longer afford to pay the incidental costs of having him in school. Brooks, says Thomas, "filled these gaps in where you came from and where you were.... There were a lot of changes to absorb. Just to think about it was fatiguing. It's still really fatiguing."
The event that cemented the black students' bond with Brooks began on Dec. 10, 1969. Early that morning, several dozen students protesting General Electric Co.'s (GE) alleged profiteering from the Vietnam War blocked the entrance to the campus center to stop a GE recruitment drive. About five black demonstrators showed up on their own after the Black Students Union declined to support it officially. The college judicial board suspended only the organizers and the black participants, arguing that the black students were easy to identify from pictures. Wells represented the expelled black students before the board. When he and Martin complained about the selective treatment to the Reverend Raymond J. Swords, the Holy Cross president refused to reverse the decision. Almost all of the college's 65 black students decided to quit. "We were all so frightened about the consequences of quitting school," says Wells, but he adds that everyone felt they had to take a stand. "It was discriminatory and unfair."
The cost could have been profound had Brooks not stepped in. Calling the decision unjust, he tried to secure an amnesty and woo the students back. As they left campus, often to the deep dismay of their parents, Brooks worked through the nights, talking to Wells, the president, and others. "We had no money, so Father Brooks gave us a couple hundred dollars for food." Brooks argued vehemently that the administration had to back down from singling out black students for punishment. "It was racism, basically," he now says of the school's decision. Finally, after more than two days of sweaty discussions and national headlines, Swords granted amnesty. Alumni were outraged. It was Brooks who took on the task of trying to appease them while reinforcing the message that "African Americans will be at Holy Cross, whether you like it or not."
As the years pass, the imprint of the experience these men shared at Holy Cross remains indelible. None of them is sure where he would be without having lived through it. Thomas left in 1971 to pursue his dream of getting a law degree at Yale, an experience that he considered a letdown compared with his undergraduate years. "Let me put it this way. It wasn't the kind of environment Holy Cross was," says Thomas, who characterizes Holy Cross as a B or B+ school at the time. Unlike Yale, Holy Cross wasn't an elite institution. Nobody expected black students to feel grateful simply for getting a foot through the door. "You don't go to college to be a decoration. You're not there to please other people," he says. "I went to school to learn and get on with my life."
The rest left in 1972, some with paths clearly paved and others taking time to figure things out. Grayson's basketball dreams were dashed when he broke his kneecap in the middle of senior year and lost his opportunity to be drafted. Brooks helped to see him through it. Like many of his classmates, Grayson went on to get a law degree, in part because "it took away the questions about your ability." He then moved into the corporate world, politics, and finance, becoming the first African American to head the municipal bond department of a major firm (Prudential Securities (PRU)). Brooks and the school "left me with the sense that I could compete," says Grayson, now president and chief operating officer of M.R. Beal & Co., an investment firm. Jenkins had his stint in the NFL before getting a law degree and pursuing a career in Boston. "We all knew where we were and where we wanted to go," he says. Even Jones, who was briefly homeless and stuck in less lucrative jobs, never let go of his ambitions, thanks to encouragement he got at Holy Cross. "If I hadn't gone there, I wouldn't have been a writer," he says.
Brooks wasn't a savior, nor was he even really a father figure. What he did, in Wells' view, was prove that someone at the highest level of the college deeply cared about them and their success. "Knowing that made it possible for us to remain engaged," he says. "We changed the college, and it changed us."
Thomas, for one, sometimes yearns for the camaraderie of those days. "I've been focused on these jobs which consume your life," he says, pointing to a sketch that sits on the wall of his Supreme Court chambers. It shows a man draped over his desk, arms falling listlessly towards the floor. A friend felt it captured his life. "Just exhaustion. Mental. Physical. Spiritual," Thomas explains. "You just want to slow down. You see people take a walk, and you want to, too." One thing that makes him smile is the thought of the Jesuit priest who helped him thrive during a difficult period in his life. It wasn't serendipity that his peers went on to such successful careers, he insists. "It was Father Brooks."
By Diane Brady