By Diane Brady

Spiegel & Grau. 242 pp. $25

How did two of America’s most accomplished African Americans — Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edward P. Jones — end up in the same class at Holy Cross, a small, Catholic liberal arts college in uber-Caucasian Worcester, Mass.? One white priest.

’Fraternity: In 1968, a visionary priest recruited 20 black men to the College of the Holy Cross and changed their lives and the course of history’ by Diane Brady (Spiegel & Grau/Random House)

“Even among the Jesuits, a progressive, intellectual, and typically outspoken order of the Church, John Brooks stood out,” writes Diane Brady, a senior editor at Bloomberg Businessweek, in “Fraternity.” Partly inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., Brooks persuaded a skeptical faculty to admit a cohort of young black men shortly after the civil rights leader’s assassination. “His stance on civil rights wasn’t just moral but practical,” Brady writes. “There was an ambitious generation of black men growing up in America, and the college was missing out on a chance to help shape it.”

Brooks brought future notables such as Miami Dolphins running back turned lawyer Eddie Jenkins and former New York City deputy mayor Stanley Grayson to Holy Cross, but his early experiment in affirmative action is as striking for the problems it created as for the students he found. In 1968, African Americans stuck out in Worcester. Many were unprepared for college-level work or felt isolated. Within months, the black students had founded a student union and successfully lobbied for separate housing in what some criticized as a reverse version of Jim Crow.

Though Brooks is Brady’s protagonist, Thomas, who as a Supreme Court justice has opposed affirmative action, is the book’s most fascinating figure. Brooks testified on the justice’s behalf at his 1991 confirmation hearing, but it’s hard to imagine that the priest approves of many of his protege’s opinions. After recounting Thomas’s surprising participation in student strikes, Brady explains the genesis of his later views.

“After receiving a full scholarship to Holy Cross, he went on to reject the belief than any ethnic minority should have the same opportunities that he had received,” she writes. “He felt that instead of being praised for what he had accomplished when given the opportunity, the fact that he had been given an opportunity because of his skin color had overshadowed the accomplishments.”

Justin Moyer