Archive for February, 2012

The Way of the Jesuit

February 9, 2012

And a new book about Father John Brooks, the 1960’s, Holy Cross and some of its first Black Alumni (Clarence Thomas and Ted Wells among them)

In one of his many “God & Religion: Good or Bad?” debates, Christopher Hitchens addressed the role of religion in the American civil rights movement in the 1960’s, certainly one of religion’s more admirable chapters. Hitchens pointed to Martin Luther King, Jr., and said, “Fortunately for us, he wasn’t really a Christian, because if he had followed the preachments in Exodus about the long march to freedom, he would have invoked the right that the Bible gives to take the land of others, to enslave other tribes…The people who actually organized the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph, were both secularists and socialists. The whole case for the emancipation of black America had already been made perfectly well by secularists.”

Perhaps, but it is an unrelenting belief in one’s own righteous cause that leads both the secular and religious to that kind of unyielding faith and fight they deem their cause requires. The kind of moral and intellectual tenacity that led Mr. Hitchens himself to propound and act on his myriad beliefs and causes (Hitchens’ moral god was far more infallible than many celestial gods of others, just look at his unwavering support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq despite the mounds of evidence showing how ill-conceived they were).  Many models do exist wherein religious structures provide the kind of missionary advocacy necessary for effective action. Usually the key questions are what action, and to what end.

The history and tradition of the Jesuit Order of the Catholic Church exemplify the possibilities for religious advocacy for progressive change. The work of the Jesuits is especially instructive since it is an exceptional and often-defiant part of a larger global faith that can be dangerously conservative and out of step with the day to day needs of its devout.

A new book by Diane Brady is a sort of unvarnished ode to the important work the Jesuits did during the civil rights era, and a reminder that religious advocacy and action belong equally to the left as to the right. In Fraternity, Diane Brady tells the story of the personal mission of Father John Brooks at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., a college Time magazine then dubbed the “Cradle of the Catholic Left.”  From its beginnings in the mid-19th Century, Holy Cross proved a haven of elite scholarship for members of the population unwelcome elsewhere. As Brady recounts:

Among the first students to enroll at Holy Cross were four sons of Michael Morris Healy, an Irish-born planter in Georgia, and Eliza Clark, a mixed-race slave whom Healy owned and had fallen in love with. Their children were considered slaves, making them ineligible to attend school in the South. Instead,  James, Patrick, Hugh and Sherwood Healy came to Holy Cross in 1844. The Healy boys did well – Patrick went on to become president of Georgetown University in 1874, James was valedictorian of the first graduating class in 1849 and later became the country’s first African American Catholic bishop, Michael became a celebrated sea captain, and Sherwood became a priest and rector of Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

The 1960’s presented somewhat different challenges than antebellum America though. Despite its earlier displays of integration, Holy Cross had evolved into an institution for the sons of the Irish Catholic well to do, quite removed from the hurly-burly of the decade.  While many liberal intellectuals embraced the ideas of integration and change in the 1960’s in the abstract, Father Brooks was one of the few who felt it his personal duty to realize them. The history of the Healy boys certainly played a part in affirming his convictions that Holy Cross was the right place. The death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, deepened his belief that this was also the right time. The time to try and bring bright young black men to Holy Cross, the kind of men – boys really, at age 18 —  that would survive and hopefully thrive as helmsmen of a new generation of radical change. Not a small amount of pressure, and quite a bit to ask of an 18 year old boy.

The title of the book, “Fraternity,” refers to the members of the first class Father Brooks recruited. It focuses on Ted Wells, Stan Grayson, Eddie Jenkins , Ed Jones and Clarence Thomas —  in one graduating class, one of America’s top litigators, a New  York City deputy mayor, a running back on the ’73 Miami Dolphins undefeated team and also subsequently a successful lawyer, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a Supreme Court Justice, respectively.

As Diane Brady rightfully emphasizes, Brooks understood that recruitment was perhaps the easiest step. The greater burden lay on the recruited, in dealing with feelings of isolation in an alien environment, one filled with the incomprehension and latent racism of an otherwise homogeneous college community.  Questions such as “Is it easier to get in here if you’re coloured?” and other less innocent-minded questions and comments were common. Father Brooks often could only act as a sort of spiritual and social facilitator for the black students who arrived on campus. The rest the students had to figure out on their own.

Through the accounts of their experiences over the next few years, one witnesses many of the merits and drawbacks of affirmative action as well all of the other issues playing on the minds of young, black, draft-aged men in the 60’s – Black Power, the War, the questioning of sacredly-held traditions. Perhaps most illustrative are the widely divergent experiences of Ted Wells and Clarence Thomas —  the ones they arrived with at Holy Cross and the ones they carried away:

Wells, having grown up in a city (Washington, DC) that  had become a mecca and marching ground for black pride, was   looking for ways to recreate the sense of brotherhood at Holy Cross. Thomas had spent much of his life digesting racism on his own. He had learned to move easily in the white community, even if he never felt a part of it, and he didn’t have much interest in making skin color the prime factor in determining his social circle. Thomas wanted to be seen as someone who could fit in and get along with anybody. Let Wells revel in the black identity and push for civil rights. What bothered Thomas wasn’t being black; it was being noticed for being black.”

Thomas’ subsequent experience at Yale Law School only further embittered him towards affirmative action. And it famously informed his political outlook, which has tended to estrange him from civil rights causes, black institutions and the notion that black Americans should in any way view themselves or be viewed as different than anyone else. Ted Wells, on the other hand, embraced his role as a black American leader and role model. After doing graduate work at Harvard – earning both an MBA and a JD – he has, along with his accomplishments as a top litigator (his clients include Elliott Spitzer and Scooter Libby), served as counsel for the New Jersey NAACP, State Chair of the United Negro College Fund and Co-Chair of the NAACP Legal Defense  and Education Fund.

Sometimes it does take a perfect storm. Father Brooks had arrived at Holy Cross fresh from Vatican II (1962-1965), which filled him, and many others, with a sense of purpose and urgency for social change, and a belief that the church should be at its forefront. He also had exactly the right combination of altruism, zeal, empathy, guidance and ability to know when to step back and let the black students stake out their places for themselves. Indeed, Clarence Thomas often looks back fondly at Holy Cross as a place and time where he was treated and appraised as a man, rather than a black man, mostly because of Father Brooks.

While Father Brooks is highly unique, he also seems to embody everything that is possible from a religious sect that values intellect, scholarship and a commitment to social advocacy. The Jesuit Order may be “gaying and graying,” as some insiders jokingly lament, but it also in many ways seems the way forward.