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- Copyright: 01/03/2012
- Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
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Diane Brady is senior editor and content chief at BusinessWeek, where the reporting for The Fraternity originally appeared. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and three children.
All of King’s Men
On April 4, 1968, eight black students were enrolled at the College of the Holy Cross. One, an outgoing and opinionated sophomore named Arthur “Art” Martin, from Newark, New Jersey, was studying in his dorm’s common room when he heard a commotion in the hall. A white student ran in and announced to everyone present that “Martin Luther Coon” had been shot. He looked Art straight in the eye, as if daring him to acknowledge the slur. There was an uncomfortable silence in the room as the other students all turned to stare, curious to see how the black student was going to react to the news of the civil rights leader’s death. Art calmly got up and left the study area. He held his composure until he found his friend Orion Douglass, a black senior from Savannah, and only then did his tears start to flow.
About 1,400 miles away, at the Immaculate Conception Seminary, a young student was battling his rage. Conception, Missouri, was no place to mourn the death of a black man. Clarence Thomas knew he didn’t fit in. From the minute he had arrived from Georgia in the tiny rural community where he had come to study for the priesthood, he’d had misgivings that were increasingly hard to ignore. Thomas had promised his grandfather that he would become the first black priest in Savannah, and he knew that the consequences of letting down the man who had raised him would be dire. His grandfather had made it clear that if Thomas dropped out of school, he would not be welcome back home. Thomas hadn’t expected to have fun in Missouri—he wasn’t the type of teenager who put having a good time ahead of an education—but the isolation and loneliness he experienced was a shock. While Thomas may have come across as friendly and enthusiastic to his fellow seminarians—three of whom were black—he had privately come to loathe his life at the pastoral theology school. Though he liked quite a few of his peers, he felt he had little in common with them. They sometimes stared at his black skin and spoke disparagingly about men like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. The biggest problem, though, wasn’t the other men but the demons he was battling within himself. Thomas had been mourning the death of a friend who had been killed in a fight in Savannah, and had been reading about the philosophies of a new generation of black leaders.
That sorrow, combined with the racial tensions he felt at the seminary, had merely added to his doubts about why he was there. The Roman Catholic Church had once seemed like a sanctuary from racism to Thomas. The Franciscan sisters who had taught him at St. Benedict the Moor Grammar School had shown him a level of respect he had rarely encountered on the streets of Savannah. Even St. John Vianney Minor Seminary, a white boarding school near Savannah where he had finished up high school and endured occasional teasing, had been at least tolerable in his mind. But a lot had changed over the past year. Civil rights activists like Stokeley Carmichael and Bobby Seale had helped to make black power a rallying cry on campuses nationwide, instilling black students with both a sense of pride and anger about social injustice. There was a growing sense across the country that it was time to give African Americans the rights they had been denied for so long. But one institution that had yet to come to that conclusion, in Thomas’s view, was the Roman Catholic Church. Despite the bold and inclusive vision of Catholicism that emerged from the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, he saw hypocrisy in where the Church was spending its energies. Thomas found that the Church’s discussions about how to become more relevant were lacking any real focus on the evils of racism, or on the racial segregation within the Church hierarchy. Thomas had once believed that becoming a priest would put him on equal footing with his white peers; now he wasn’t so sure. With each passing day, he instead felt more diminished and full of doubt.
Even as he gave the appearance of fitting in, Thomas felt left out by the conversations that seemed to grow quieter when he entered a room, the choice of TV shows in common areas, and even the letters that other students received from parents who seemed to care about their sons in a way that his own mother and father never had. His father had left the family when Clarence was a toddler, while his mother had left her two boys with their grandfather when Thomas was barely seven.
The scripture Thomas studied felt out of sync with the realities of 1968. The men living in Conception seemed to him oblivious to a world that was exploding with images of war, protests, and injustice. Instead of acting as a catalyst in the push for racial equality, the Church seemed to have become an oasis from it. It was hard for him to keep his faith when, amid all the battles and debates and violence over civil rights, the Church said nothing. As he would say years later, the silence haunted him.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was a beacon of hope for Thomas; through his work, King had helped him to articulate the pain he felt at being black in a racist world, a pain that Thomas had worked hard to ignore most of his life. The only time he had really been unaware of it was in the small black community of Pin Point, Georgia, where he had lived until the age of six. After his younger brother, Myers, accidentally burned down the house where they lived, the boys had moved to the slums of Savannah with their mother while Thomas’s older sister stayed in Pin Point with another relative.
On the evening of April 4, Thomas was walking back to his dormitory when one of the men watching TV suddenly yelled that King had been shot. As Thomas stood there, trying to digest the news, he heard a white classmate say, “That’s good. I hope the son of a bitch dies.” The man who’d said he hoped King would die was a future priest. In that moment, all of the white students seemed the same to Thomas. Just as King had given voice to Thomas’s hopes, one wisecracking student brought clarity to his anger. It was apparent to him that he didn’t belong with these men. There was no sanctuary in the Church, no equality in Catholicism for people like him. Thomas no longer felt a desire to swallow his rage and head off to the chapel to pray. He simply made a decision, then and there, to leave the seminary and never come back. Later in life, Thomas would refer back to King’s death as a turning point, as the moment when he abandoned both his faith and his vocation.
At eighteen, Eddie Jenkins had a confidence that many adults envied. He was handsome, in an approachable sort of way, and had a reputation for being charming and funny. His days were filled with commuting more than two hours to school and football practice in Brooklyn before returning to Queens and his after-school job at Alexander’s department store. On April 4, Jenkins was stocking shelves at Alexander’s when he looked up to see an older black man walking slowly toward him. What an Uncle Tom, the teen thought to himself. The low hang of the stranger’s head gave the man the kind of look that men his father’s age sometimes had, as if they had spent so much of their lives bowing to white people that they had forgotten how to stand tall. Jenkins turned away in disgust and went back to his work, absently wondering why the street outside wasn’t buzzing with its usual mix of music, laughter, and the chatter of commuters.
As the man approached him, Jenkins grudgingly asked if he needed help.
“The king is dead,” the man said.
Jenkins saw tears in the man’s eyes and suddenly understood why he looked so beaten down. Martin Luther King, Jr., was dead. The teen was overcome with shock. But his most overwhelming reaction was shame—shame that he had stereotyped a grieving man as a coward.
The man looked straight into Jenkins’s eyes. “You can go home now,” he said. The statement struck him as surprisingly bold, but Jenkins immediately went to the register and cashed out. When he turned around, the man was gone. Once outside, he realized again how quiet the streets were. In other parts of the city, people were already smashing store windows and setting fires, but on Queens Boulevard it seemed like the world had stopped. The few people who were still milling around were walking in silence, trying to absorb King’s death. When Jenkins got home to the Flushing section of Queens known as “Da’Ville,” his family was gathered in the living room.
“It had to be a white man,” his father said, looking up from the TV. Eddie’s father was a former merchant marine with a strong gut instinct. It was a trait that had enabled him to form the neighborhood’s first boys’ baseball team when Eddie was eight, soliciting hand-me-down uniforms from the local Jewish league and inviting white boys who hadn’t made the cut elsewhere. The team won the league championships in its first year, and Jenkins’s father went on to become league commissioner. No one knew yet who had killed King, but there was no doubt in Eddie’s father’s voice. Moreover, everyone else in the room was equally convinced that he was right.
At that moment, all of the speeches Eddie had heard from his father about learning to work with white people felt meaningless. The world was divided again. Eddie thought there was no way that black America would let this man die without some kind of retribution. He wanted to rush outside to see what was happening, but his parents convinced him to stay in the house. He had too much to lose, they said—the chance at a football scholarship, college, a lucrative career. None of those things would come to someone who was caught participating in violent demonstrations. Eddie obediently sat down in the living room and stared numbly at the TV.
Years later, after Jenkins and his Miami Dolphins had won the 1973 Super Bowl and he had moved from the NFL to become a politically active lawyer and chairman of the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, he would still cite King’s death as a turning point in his life. The civil rights battles that had seemed somewhat abstract up to that point suddenly felt personal.
By the age of seventeen, Edward Paul Jones had given up on the idea of real friendship. He and his family had already moved eighteen times around their poor northwest neighborhood in Washington, D.C. What had stayed consistent, he would later recall, were the rats and rent collectors that seemed to follow them to each new location. On the night of April 4, Jones was where he usually was at that time of day, at home, sitting alone and reading a book.
His mother was washing dishes, cleaning floors, and peeling potatoes at a French restaurant called Chez François in the center of town. His father had left long ago, when Ed was two and his mother was pregnant with her third child. Jones’s sister, now fifteen, had moved up to Brooklyn a few years earlier to live with an aunt, and his sixteen-year-old brother was living in a “children’s village” in Laurel, Maryland, about twenty miles outside Washington. Jones vividly remembered the day his mother had to confront the reality that her middle child had come into the world with a brain that, as he would later put it, didn’t work quite right. Jones was four years old when a letter arrived. Unable to read or write, his mother had wandered through the boardinghouse where they lived, trying to find someone to read it. When she finally found a man on his way up the stairs, he told her that the note was from a city court, warning her that officials were coming to take Joseph away because he was “feeble-minded.” Jeanette had collapsed on the stairs in tears, clutching her daughter as Ed just watched and felt alone.
Now it was just Ed and his mother, living together but largely keeping out of each other’s way. He had turned off the evening news earlier than usual, thus missing the special bulletin that announced King’s assassination. Jones didn’t learn about King’s death until the next morning, when he turned on the radio. He and his mother sat in silence. Neither of them had ever paid much attention to the civil rights leader. His mother had been too busy keeping up with the demands of life to let herself get wrapped up in dreaming about civil rights. For her bookish son, the idea that King’s fight might become his own seemed equally remote.
By the time Jones went outside, he smelled smoke and stepped over broken glass—evidence of the rioting that had begun during the night. He was barely a block from home when a black man walked by, struggling with a television in his arms. A group of white men came up behind him and confiscated it. They looked official, wearing what appeared to be something akin to police uniforms, but there was something in the way they laughed when they grabbed the TV set that made Jones think they were just robbers in another guise.
Jones wandered the streets surveying the destruction. When he came up to a Hahn Shoes store he had passed every day, he stopped. The windows were broken and people were streaming onto the streets with as many shoe boxes as they could carry. Jones felt himself drawn inside, where his eyes watered from what he assumed must have been tear gas. His eyes fell on a display of twenty-dollar shoes, and he quickly pulled out a pair that seemed to be his size and ran out. They would be good shoes for college, he decided.
Although he performed well at school, Jones didn’t know much about his chances for college. He had looked at Howard University, but just applying there would have meant paying extra money to take the relatively new ACT college entrance exam in addition to the usual SAT test, so he had ruled it out. And he was nowhere near the top of the list at the new Federal City College, which seemed to be accepting everybody. He was no athlete, either. He hadn’t even done particularly well on the SAT. But a few months earlier, a young Jesuit who knew him from the neighborhood had told him about Holy Cross, where a priest named John Brooks was eager to recruit black students. The priest told Jones that Brooks might drive him to the campus for a weekend if Jones could get a bus to Philadelphia and meet up with some other students. Jones decided to follow up on the offer. As he grabbed the shoes, he was thinking about wearing them to Worcester.
Stanley Grayson was enjoying his status as a minor celebrity. The basketball team at All Saints High School in Detroit had recently won the state championships for the first time in its history, and many gave Grayson the credit. With just seconds left and a one-point lead in the final game, Grayson had been fouled and sank both his shots to seal a victory. The six-foot-four team captain was suddenly a hero. The city’s Catholic High School League named him outstanding scholar-athlete of the year. He was getting scholarship offers from schools that included Villanova and the University of Michigan. Having also helped his team finish as runner?up in the state championships the year before, Grayson didn’t have to worry about anyone doubting his skills. Whatever discomfort he may have felt at being black in a school full of Hungarian and Polish kids was outweighed by the reality that, at the moment, he was a star.
Grayson didn’t have many complaints. He couldn’t recall a time when he’d ever felt underprivileged. Detroit had been the site of a racial inferno a year earlier, but it wasn’t the same hotbed of inequality that characterized the South. The auto industry’s booming success enabled men of all colors to get assembly-line jobs, where they could make enough money to support their families. Grayson’s father, who worked in quality control at the Ford Motor Company, took pride in supporting his five children. He could be angry at times—a leftover, his children felt, from his days of serving in a black platoon in the South Pacific during World War II—but he loved his family and he wanted his children to make something of their lives. Grayson, the second-oldest child in the family, was sure of a few things. One was that he didn’t want to go to Vietnam, where his older brother was serving as a Marine. The second was that he wanted to go to college and play basketball.
Grayson was sitting at home on the night of April 4 when the phone rang. He rushed to pick it up so that the noise wouldn’t wake his mother, who was resting before starting her night shift as a nurse. One of Grayson’s teammates was on the other end of the line.
“Turn on the TV,” he said to Grayson.
“What’s going on?”
“Just turn on the TV. King has just been killed.”
Grayson hung up without saying goodbye and ran to the TV set. There were images of dazed people milling around the hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, where King had been pronounced dead. President Lyndon B. Johnson had given a televised statement from the White House talking about the sadness he felt at the “brutal slaying” and asked “every citizen to reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King.” It was clear from the president’s voice that he was worried about the possibility of riots, which were already starting to break out across the country. As he watched the screen, Grayson’s confident excitement about the future was gone. In its place a cloud now seemed to hover above the country. He wondered whether Detroit was going to be destroyed again.
The city hadn’t yet fully recovered from the chaos of the previous summer, when five days of looting, burning, and angry marches had left more than two thousand buildings destroyed, hundreds injured, and forty-three people dead. Grayson vividly recalled witnessing his neighbors’ anger against the humiliating police tactics, and now he listened for the sounds of glass being smashed and people yelling. Yet Detroit seemed oddly quiet. Even so, his instinct was to stick close to home. Everyone feared a repeat of 1967. Later he found out that there were some signs of protest elsewhere in the city, but nothing on par with what was happening in some other major cities. After the events of the previous summer, the Detroit police had learned how to clamp down quickly on troublemakers. That was fine by Grayson. The last thing he wanted to do was set buildings on fire to mourn the life of a man who preached nonviolence. It felt wrong, and he had his own future to worry about.
Years later, the investment banker and former deputy mayor of New York would still shake his head in sadness when thinking about King’s death. “For me and my peers, it turned our worlds upside down,” he said during an interview at the headquarters of M.R. Beal in lower Manhattan. “Here’s a man who had asked people to judge him by the content of his character and not by the color of his skin. He had the power to make people act. You have to understand how much hope a lot of us had invested in Dr. King. When he died, I think a lot of that hope died with him.”
Theodore V. Wells, Jr., had never seen anything like the tanks that were rolling through his neighborhood in Washington, D.C. He sat on the front steps of his small rowhouse with a friend, his eyes fixed on a parade of armored personnel carriers and army trucks that were all headed downtown to quell the riots. Wells noticed that troops from the Maryland National Guard were already stationed around the corner to prevent the arson and looting from spreading to his working-class neighborhood; tanks had even parked on the Coolidge High School football fields. A little more than a day had passed since King’s death, but the area around Fourteenth Street had already been largely destroyed.
Wells’s football coach was angry about the military presence. Although he understood the magnitude of the event and the seriousness of the violence that had broken out in response to it, being black himself he could hardly welcome the armed and mainly white soldiers who were stopping his team from practicing. Wells, though, felt both exhilarated and scared. As he passed through the school parking lot, he noticed a man standing beside the open trunk of his car, trying to sell clothes that had been stolen in the riot.
On the night of King’s death, Wells and his friends had been playing pickup basketball on a court near the high school when his mother had come to tell him the news. Phyllis Wells was a mailroom clerk at the Department of the Navy, earning just enough to raise her son and his younger sister. Ma Wells, as she liked to be called, showered her children with love, and she did the same for the young friends and neighbors who constantly dropped by their home in northwest Washington. A good life, she told her children, was about putting in the effort. Having moved at eighteen from a small farm in Virginia to take a government job, she knew that success never came from laziness. But she also understood the power of laughter, community, and good food, and cooked a massive meal every Sunday for Ted and his friends. They, and everyone else in the neighborhood, adored Ma Wells.
As soon as she heard about King’s death, Ma Wells immediately began to worry for her son. Ted—or “Tokey,” as everyone in the neighborhood called him—was a diligent student and a star center on the school’s football team. Out on the street, though, where rage was escalating fast, a six-foot-two, 230-pound black man could easily become a police target. Wells’s mother went straight to the basketball court and insisted that her son and his friends come back to the house. They all followed her, unsure of what to do next.
The riots started slowly that night. Stokely Carmichael, a former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who had months earlier become prime minister of the Black Panther Party, held a press conference in the U.S. Capitol, calling the murder of Dr. King a declaration of war against black people. Carmichael then led mourners through the neighborhoods near Wells’s home, asking that owners close their stores out of respect for King. The requests then turned to demands, and things escalated from there. Soon it hardly mattered what the store owners did: Some people just felt like lashing out. Carmichael was said to have told people to stay calm, but it was too late. Emotions were running high as hymns played from transistor radios, and TV networks ran clips of King’s speeches. It didn’t take long for the looting to begin.
Although the city was still calm enough on Friday morning for Wells and his sister, who was eleven years younger, to go to school, the situation deteriorated fast. By noon so many rioters were throwing rocks and bottles at cars that his mother couldn’t get a ride home from work. Ted picked up his sister from school; when they got home, they could see the tanks and army trucks from their front porch. Ted had a passion for civil rights that had been nourished by living in the center of black Washington and attending occasional protest rallies. While he admired Carmichael and his calls for black power, he had no particular desire to rage against the establishment.
Wells was a good student, used to getting straight A’s on his report cards and praise for his work ethic. Even in elementary school, he had kept track of his grades, creating his own report card long before the official one arrived. Once, when a teacher dared to give him a lower-than-expected mark, he went to her with his own handwritten record of his achievements and convinced her to raise the grade. He wasn’t a protester by nature; he was a charmer, a leader, the one who stood up for classmates against bullies and could always make his teammates laugh. He had his sights set on Howard University, a historically black institution that had been Carmichael’s alma mater and that was where President Johnson had delivered a landmark speech on civil rights a few years earlier. Howard was the kind of place where Wells could imagine himself becoming a leader.
By Sunday morning, more than eight hundred fires were burning across D.C., mostly in black neighborhoods. More than a thousand people were hurt, and twelve were dead, though Mayor-Commissioner Walter Washington had instructed the police not to shoot at rioters. The devastation was staggering: Hundreds of buildings had been reduced to rubble, wiping out the largely black-owned businesses in the area and destroying the livelihoods of the people who worked for them. In some cases, the scars would turn out to be permanent. Wells, at the age of seventeen, suddenly felt that his hometown would never be the same.
They were five young men at a pivotal point in their lives, but they were also coming of age at a time when their country was in a state of upheaval. Nineteen sixty-eight would turn out to be one of the most dramatic and difficult years in American history. January had brought the Tet Offensive, a series of surprise attacks by North Vietnamese troops that stunned the U.S. public and the military, raising doubts about the promise that victory was in sight. Within weeks, newscaster Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America,” had turned against the Vietnam War and concluded that the only way out of the stalemate was to negotiate for peace. As more members of the massive baby boom generation became eligible for military service, the resistance and anger at being forced to fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia increased. For many black Americans, Vietnam had become a civil rights issue. According to figures cited by King, who had come out against the war in 1967, the United States had spent $322,000 for each enemy killed in Vietnam and only $53 on each person it had classified as poor in its war on poverty. When former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali was asked shortly after King’s death about the prospects of going to jail for resisting the draft, he told sportscaster Bud Collins that “blacks have actually been in jail for the 400 years we’ve been here in America.” The war had become another source of racial tension due to the widespread perception that a disproportionate number of combat troops were black, in part because they lacked the resources to go to college and defer being drafted.
As Thomas, Wells, and the other men struggled to come to terms with King’s death, they were unaware of the impact it was already starting to have on the college landscape. The assassination of the country’s greatest civil rights champion had inspired many to turn their talk about equality into action. College administrators examined their curriculum, their faculty, and their policies to see how they might find a way to carry on the work of Dr. King. Many looked around their campuses and realized how little they had done to chip away at social inequality. For some, the sea of white faces that they had long taken for granted now became a source of shame. For Stan Grayson, some of the hope and promise of civil rights may have diminished with King’s death. But for one man, Father John Brooks, the sudden sense of urgency gave him the resources and the authority to truly put the preacher’s teachings into practice.