“Powerful voice for racial and social justice. Pillar of American trial practice. Masterful strategist for the defense. Tireless champion for civil rights and educational opportunity. Exemplary son of Holy Cross.”
With these words, Provost and Dean of the College Margaret Freije addressed Theodore V. “Ted” Wells Jr. ’72 and the hundreds gathered in the Hogan Ballroom to see Wells receive an honorary degree from the College of the Holy Cross.
Since arriving at Holy Cross in 1968 as one of the College’s first black students, Wells has become a leading white-collar criminal defense attorney in the United States. The honorary degree, which was presented on Nov. 9 as many returned to campus to celebrate the Black Student Union’s 50th anniversary, recognized Wells’ legal career, service to the College, and work championing civil rights, racial and social justice, and educational equality.
“This weekend is not about me or any single individual, but is rather a celebration of the 50th anniversary of an historic event in the history of Holy Cross — the decision by Fr. John Brooks to integrate Holy Cross beyond a token number of black students,” said Wells in his address, choosing to usher the focus away from himself after receiving his degree.
Entering kindergarten at an integrated school the year after the Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown vs. Board of Education, and entering Holy Cross the year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Wells explained that the 19 black students who arrived at Holy Cross in 1968 were “the children of the civil rights movement” who had lived their teenage years “in the midst of what was often a violent struggle for racial equality.”
Their goal in coming to Holy Cross, he said, was the same as that of their fellow white students.
“We wanted a great education and we hoped that great academic training would in turn help us get good jobs. None of us thought we would win Pulitzer Prizes, or play on Super Bowl teams, or go on the U.S. Supreme Court.”
The purpose and conviction with which the men approached their careers echoes that of their time at Holy Cross. In his first semester at the College, Wells co-founded the BSU and, a year later, was helping lead the infamous 1969 BSU walkout, where the organization’s 60-plus members left Holy Cross, suitcases in hand, in objection to the College’s suspension of four black students for participating in a protest against General Electric’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
“The night the members of the BSU decided to withdraw from Holy Cross in protest was one of the most difficult nights of our lives. Each black student called his parents that night to tell them we were quitting school over a matter of principle,” Wells shared. “I cannot adequately explain the level of fear we had about the wisdom of our decision to leave a college we loved and the uncertain future we faced.”
Wells took the opportunity to recognize the role the late Fr. Brooks, former president of the College, played in negotiating a resolution to the walkout, which would not have ended in the black students’ return without him.
“If it had not been for Fr. Brooks,” said Wells, “the history of black students at Holy Cross would be far different from that which we celebrate today.”
Wells, who holds an M.B.A. and a J.D. from Harvard, has spent the last 50 years practicing law at a premier law firm and working pro bono for nonprofits like the NAACP, focusing on civil rights and racial justice.
“In that half century,” he shared, “America has continued its great experiment in racial integration.” And while we have seen many positive developments, said Wells, we still do not live in a post-racial world.
“The fight for equality in America must be led by a multi-racial coalition. This country needs whites, blacks, and other people of color to join together in the struggle for basic human and civil rights. That was the message that Fr. Brooks taught us by his words and by his deeds. We should celebrate his life and vision by fighting together for a color-blind society, where all people are not only equal in the eyes of God but also in the eyes of their fellow human beings.”
According to Rev. Philip L. Boroughs, S.J., president of the College, Wells is an example of the heroic leaders who have emerged out of this ongoing struggle for freedom and civil rights.
“We recognize that Ted’s contributions are the consequence of and his response to a history and culture of slavery and racism in this country, and his participation in prolonged efforts by individuals and communities and organizations to fight for equality, and freedom, and civil rights.
“It is most appropriate then,” Fr. Boroughs continued, “that on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Black Student Union at Holy Cross, and in light of the struggles which produced it, and the ongoing commitments which enliven it today, that we honor the life and work of one of its founders.”
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