Forgotten justice

Kevin Boyle's "Arc of Justice" resurrects one of history's great lost civil rights cases to create a courtroom drama for the ages.

By Priya Jain
Published October 5, 2004 7:00AM (EDT)

The cover of Kevin Boyle's "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age" features a worn black-and-white photograph of what looks like a packed courtroom, with four men in the foreground looking off to the right, as if awaiting a verdict. All of them, three white and one black, wearing suits, have their faces scrubbed out, as if someone had taken an eraser to them while the photograph was still wet. That has been the state of the 80-year-old Ossian Sweet case: pretty much wiped out of American history. But by the time Boyle -- an associate professor of history best known for his books on the labor movement -- finishes reconstructing it, we have a clear, precise snapshot of an incident that belongs in our collective memory.

The story begins in 1925 Detroit, a teeming city so tight with racial tension it's ready to explode. In the heyday of the auto industry, cash-flush Detroit was "America's great boomtown." It was also the country's fourth largest city, a beacon for black Americans escaping Jim Crow in the South and immigrants fleeing depressed, postwar Europe. Five thousand seven hundred blacks lived in Detroit in 1910; by 1925, that number had swelled to 81,000. The Great Migration, as the mass movement of blacks from the South to northern cities in the early 20th century is known, made the nativists restless; by 1924, Detroit's branch of the Klu Klux Klan claimed 35,000 members.

In the middle of all this was Ossian Sweet, a doctor whose most immediate goal was to get his family out of Detroit's black ghetto. He moved them into a bungalow in a white, working-class neighborhood, and, accurately reading the boldness of this move, he brought along nine friends and a bagful of guns. The neighbors -- hundreds of them -- rioted, throwing rocks at the Sweets' house and advancing on the front door. The police officers meant to guard the Sweets against danger made no move to stop the mob. And then suddenly, someone inside the house shot out into the street, wounding one white man and killing another, and the 11 black adults, including Sweet's wife, were taken to jail and charged with first-degree murder.

Boyle's portrait of the mob's rage, and Sweet's reaction, is gripping. When Sweet opens the door, he sees "the scene he'd dreaded all his life, the moment when he stood facing a sea of white faces made grotesque by unreasoned, unrestrained hate -- for his race, for his people, for him." Sweet was prepared for this moment -- in the not-too-distant past, his colleagues had moved into white neighborhoods and had had to face similar, murderous mobs. It's hard not to ask then, what drove Sweet to do it? Why purposely walk into the eye of the storm?

Boyle devotes the first half of the book to answering this question. By moving back through the life of Ossian Sweet, he gives us a thorough treatment of the postbellum South, racial politics in the North, the formation of the first black universities, and lynchings and race riots throughout the country. Boyle's Sweet is neither a hero nor a fool; he's a product of a time in which for many blacks, moving into a white neighborhood, even if it meant facing down a mob of angry whites, was their only chance to live in comparative peace.

Boyle has a keen eye for detail and a laudable aversion to idealizing his subjects. Although his affection for Sweet is clear, he's also honest -- sometimes brutally so -- about Sweet's weaknesses. He portrays Sweet as a man of fierce pride and ambition obsessed with status and material things, the kind of person so awkwardly self-conscious that he comes across as arrogant and cold. Even as the mob rails outside his new house and rocks shatter the windows, Sweet, unsure of what to do, takes to his bed; he "first slid off his shoes so as not to scuff the comforter, and lay down in the darkness, the pistol at his side." In just this action, we see a man as hemmed in by notions of bourgeois propriety as he is terrified by what he has to do to earn respectability.

Sweet was inspired by the black leader W.E.B. DuBois, in particular by his notion of the "Talented Tenth" -- the well-educated, professional black class that DuBois claimed would lead the way to racial equality. (A disembodied DuBois presides over the book's narrative like a just but angry god, dispensing judgment through the pages of his magazine, the Crisis.) For Sweet, who had escaped the South to earn a medical degree and take his place among the Talented Tenth, the social pressure to fight against the institutionalized racism of Detroit was enormous. "To back down," writes Boyle, "would be to admit that he wasn't willing to live up to the principles that had been preached to him ever since Wilberforce [University], that he had no claim to a place among the Talented Tenth." Boyd's point is not that Sweet wasn't strong or idealistic in his own way, but that ideologies and social movements like DuBois' were essential in galvanizing black individuals into action.

Against this historical background, the Ossian Sweet case became a courtroom drama of national importance. Detroit's mayor, Johnny Smith, was running a fraught race for reelection against a Klansman (in the previous race, the Klan's candidate would have won if Smith hadn't rigged the election). The city's immigrants, thanks to Smith's campaign rhetoric, were beginning to see that the Klan's determination to segregate blacks could quickly extend to them as well. And the fledgling NAACP was trying to start the Legal Defense Fund that would, 30 years later, bring about the victory of Brown vs. Board of Education.

If the first half of Boyle's book belongs to Sweet, the second half belongs to the NAACP and Clarence Darrow. James Weldon Johnson, then executive secretary of the NAACP, hit upon the Sweets' murder trial as the perfect public cause to garner support for the Legal Defense Fund he wanted to create. Thanks to him, the case received national attention and the Sweets won as their defense attorney Clarence Darrow, the famous labor lawyer, Scopes "Monkey Trial" defender and the man who would become synonymous with defending civil rights -- starting with the Sweet case. Like Johnson, Darrow had his own motives for defending the Sweets, and Boyle, ever vigilant against romanticizing, makes those clear: Love of the spotlight and the avant-garde moved him more than "the plight of the masses," and "in the glare of a high-profile case he found the perfect opportunity to attack the status quo and proclaim the modernist creed." In other words, he was a free-loving bohemian rebel.

In the courtroom scenes, Boyle gives Darrow room to thunder -- and how he does! He's a cinematic character, a soaring orator who speaks for six hours at a time and moves the courtroom to tears. If there were only one reason for Boyle to resuscitate this old story, it would be to remind contemporary readers of this Darrow. By the time the unfortunate prosecuting attorney gets to speak, his closing argument, in the words of someone in the courtroom, "reminded one of the clatter of folding chairs after a symphony concert."

If the book has a weakness, it is that Boyle never questions the defense's version of events: He dismisses the prosecution's case -- that there was no mob attacking the Sweets and the two men shot were innocent passersby -- as based on blatant lies. And in fact, most of Boyle's narrative of the mob attack relies on defense testimony. But "Arc of Justice" isn't primarily a book about a murder case; Boyle is far more interested in a larger story, about how the actions of a few individuals collided with local politics, a national civil rights movement and the concerns of a polyglot immigrant class.

But there is one more reason why Ossian Sweet's story remains relevant today, and it's also what makes Boyle's book terribly depressing: For all of the efforts of the NAACP and Darrow during and after the Sweet case, Detroit today is the nation's most segregated city. Boyle blames America's failure to solve its race problem on the failure of black America's defenders -- including Darrow -- to see that racism was a structural problem that needed to be attacked structurally, using the law and societal institutions, not just with goodwill. "They simply shrugged their shoulders and said they didn't know what could be done about it," he writes. "Racism was a personal failing, after all, to be solved by understanding, by civility, by a softening of the human heart."

Darrow's defense of the Sweets rested on the argument that they shot to save their own lives; no one touched on the unfairness inherent in the real-estate market that affected both whites, who suffered depressed property values when blacks moved into the neighborhood, and blacks, who were confined to the ghetto. But, as Boyle shows throughout the book, the supposedly desegregated North was in reality a land of shadow Jim Crow, abetted by "economic structures that transformed hatred into organized violence," like the one that allowed whites to write in clauses to their property deeds preventing blacks from ever owning them. For a contemporary America still struggling with the painful legacy of its racist past, it's a tale worth listening to.

Priya Jain

Priya Jain is a freelance writer in New York.

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