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An Improbable ‘Fraternity’

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Posted on Mar 29, 2013
AP/Michael Dwyer

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks at College of the Holy Cross after receiving an honorary degree last year.

By Shaun Randol

On Oct. 10, 2012, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Fisher v. Texas. At stake is whether to uphold a previous ruling (Grutter v. Bollinger, 2003), which would allow, in this case, the University of Texas at Austin to use race in undergraduate admissions decisions. Overruling the Grutter decision could eliminate the use of affirmative action in college admissions. The stakes are high, but the drama does not end there.

“The move to strike down racial preferences in college admissions brings together two of the most important men in American law: Clarence Thomas and Theodore V. Wells Jr.,” Diane Brady wrote in an article published in Bloomberg Businessweek at the time of the hearing. “The first is the most enigmatic member of the Court; the second is among the country’s top trial lawyers. One is expected to decide against the practice; the other helped craft the American Bar Association’s argument to maintain it.” A decision on the case is forthcoming.

Thomas and Wells are cut from the same collegial cloth. The two legal giants entered the College of the Holy Cross in 1968, a year that would prove a turning point for them, the school and a string of other successful students. If it hadn’t been for a decision that anticipated affirmative action, in which Thomas, Wells and a number of other black men were actively recruited to the school, their storied careers might never have occurred.

Father John Brooks, then head of the theology department at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., was deeply moved by the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He saw in King’s fall an opportunity to carry on the man’s legacy of compassion, equality and justice. The best way to do this, Brooks thought, was to integrate the mostly white campus, which then had only eight black students. At the dogged urging of Brooks, in 1968, Thomas, Wells and 18 other young black males were admitted.

Thomas, the second African-American to serve on the Supreme Court, and Wells, a prominent attorney whose clients include Eliot Spitzer, Scooter Libby, Citigroup and Exxon Mobil, went on to become hugely successful in the field of law. Three of their fellow classmates made equally impressive strides in other domains of society.

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Eddie Jenkins is among them. Now also a successful lawyer, Jenkins played for the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only NFL team to have a perfect season. Another star athlete-student, Stanley Grayson, served as one of New York City Mayor Ed Koch’s deputy mayors and is now president and chief operating officer of M.R. Beal & Company, one of the country’s oldest minority-owned investment banks. And the quiet Edward P. Jones, who teaches creative writing at George Washington University, not only won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize with his novel “The Known World,” he was awarded a coveted MacArthur genius grant the next year.

How did these men get to Holy Cross, and how did they evolve from a pioneering group of students into leaders in American sports, culture, law and business? This remarkable story is the subject of Diane Brady’s book “Fraternity.”

I met Brady at the headquarters of Bloomberg LP, parent company of Bloomberg Businessweek, where she serves as senior editor.

Shaun Randol: Is it fair to say this story found you, rather than you pursuing this story?

Diane Brady: Very much so. When I initially went to lunch with Stan Grayson, there was no agenda other than to meet this guy who is the head of the largest minority-owned investment bank. It was serendipity in the way that it happened to coincide with Ted Wells’ representation of Scooter Libby. Edward P. Jones also happened to be fairly top of mind, because not much time had passed since “The Known World” had come out. It was this confluence of events that made me think I’d like to find out more about these men and Father Brooks.

Randol: Why was Father Brooks so motivated to tell this story?

Brady: These are by their very nature, success stories. These are five men who succeeded remarkably. He, like a lot of people, is pretty disillusioned with what has happened in the decades since. In a way I think he saw it as a golden moment in his own life. He felt he had put a big emphasis on these guys as leaders, but he never got much attention for it.

Another reason is that I think he has sympathy for Clarence Thomas and feels that not only do people portray him unfairly in the media, but that Thomas was not always the way he is portrayed now.


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