82 of 89 people found the following review helpful
on October 21, 2004
In the afterward to his brilliant and captivating "Arc of Justice," the story of a pivotal but largely forgotten incident in America's Civil Rights movement in 1925 Detroit, historian Kevin Boyle writes that segregation is so "deeply entrenched" in this country that it can't be uprooted. Even today, he writes, black and white neighborhoods across the United States are "separated by enduring discriminatory practices, racial fears and hatreds, and the casual acceptance by too many people that there is no problem to address."
It's a stunning statement to many, no doubt, yet surprising in its obliqueness: a century of lynchings and race riots following the Civil War are over, having taken a full hundred years to slow to a crawl and then die. But many vestiges of discrimination remain. Because the practice has continued, many of us give no pause to the one singular thriving aspect the black/white conflict, that of racial segregation in our cities and towns. Residential segregation continues to go unchecked because, from the comfort of our living rooms and our front porches, we continue to proudly (but blindly) proclaim that - as some citizens of Detroit in 1925 proclaimed - we harbor no prejudices.
Boyle's meticulous research delves into that problem - the intersection of prejudice and the marketplace and the role that force plays in maintaining the color line, particularly with respect to restrictive covenants in real estate - by examining the story of Ossian and Gladys Sweet, a black doctor and his wife who purchased a home in a white neighborhood in Detroit in the simmering summer of 1925. The second night in their new residence, some 600 men, women and children ignored the presence of a half-dozen policemen there to protect the Sweets and began to barrage the two-story house with stones, shattering its windows and walls and the fragile psyche of the frightened Sweets and the eight friends there to help protect them from the onslaught they knew was coming.
Before the night was over, shots were fired from the Sweets' new residence. One neighbor was killed and another wounded.
"Arc of Justice" is the story of that night and its aftermath, particularly focusing on the trial of the Sweets and their eight companions on the charge of murder. It is equal parts history lesson, biography, courtroom drama and legal textbook, and takes the reader into the intense struggle of the working black in America during a time and place when America never seemed to work harder - in the 1920s in a lower- to middle-class, fast-growing city. It details the unique set of circumstances that would combine to create a scenario where four score Detroit factory workers, wives and other neighbors would, without reservation, conspire together under the guise of "neighborhood improvement" to oust the unwelcome visitors by any means necessary - and then to blatantly lie about it in court.
It also tells the story of how the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) took on the Sweet case, eventually hiring Clarence Darrow - just months removed from the Scopes "Monkey Trial" that solidified his place in history - as its lead attorney. Boyle shows clearly how necessary it was for someone like Darrow to take on the case. Even though the law was on the Sweets' side, society wasn't - and a right verdict in the case would have never happened had not Darrow and others dedicated to Civil Rights and the real practice of equality under the law poured so much effort into it.
To understand how the Sweets' story could have taken place, Boyle devotes two detailed chapters to telling the important and fascinating story about what happened between the races in the period from Reconstruction to the Roaring 20s. The Emancipation Proclamation (in 1863) and the Reconstruction that followed the end of the Civil War in 1865 did little to improve the lives of Southern blacks. Slavery ended, of course, but the abject poverty of the black laborer continued to be a constant companion. Blacks, by law, had new rights. But the law did little to stop violence against blacks: lynchings and race riots were common, and in the South, the fiscal responsibility that came with freedom kept most former slaves, and their kin, in bondage. To keep the black man down, some states enacted laws designed to limit the freedom of blacks; in many towns, poll taxes and other forms of formalized segregation made life, for some, more difficult than in the days of slavery.
In the North, however, things were different. New technology, powerful industrial mergers and an incredible optimism followed the end of World War I, and as the 1920s dawned, the great migration began change the face, literally, of the nation: blacks moved in masses from the stifling oppression of the South to go to work in the factories of the North. In one 15-year period, the number of colored citizens living in New York City increased from 91,000 to 300,000; in Detriot, where Henry Ford was beginning to build an automotive empire, their numbers grew from 5,700 to nearly 91,000 between 1910 and 1925.
The migration of Europeans to the North turned its giant cities into melting pots of language and culture. Many native-born Americans denounced the arriving waves of foreigners. But their sentiments almost paled as they braced themselves for the immigrants from Alabama and Georgia and Louisiana. Not only did blacks make the trip northward; Jim Crow did as well. Northern cities didn't always have the formal forms of segregation found in the south, but as more and more blacks moved there, more types of segregation could be found - and Detroit led the way.
Driven by the growth of Ford's factories, Detroit grew at a phenomenal rate. In 1900, there were 285,000 people living there; by 1925, when Ossian and Gladys moved to Garland Avenue, a few miles east of downtown, the city's population was 1.25 million. Inevitably, black professionals began to escape the "Black Bottom" slums and move into nicer neighborhoods, and in the summer of 1925, violence against blacks moving into homes previously occupied - and surrounded - by whites was common.
The Sweets stood up for themselves and in many ways prevailed. But the small gains that resulted from their case came at a high price for many of those involved.
The author, Boyle, a native of Detroit, is an associate professor of history at Ohio State University. He's written three other books dealing with the working class, labor and unions. Arc of Justice is an incredible work, more enthralling than any work of fiction I've read. It's truth, but it's sad truth. Thanks to Boyle, those truths won't be forgotten. Ignored, perhaps, but not forgotten.
34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
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Kevin Boyle, a history professor, and National Book Award-winning author of "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age," has written the best true crime book I have ever read, including Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood." A Detroit native, Boyle tells one of the city's most important civil rights episodes - the September night in 1925 when black people took up arms to defend their home from a white mob. His narrative of the sensational murder trial, which ignited the Civil Rights Movement, is electrifying! Boyle's research is meticulous. He interweaves the incidents leading up to the murder, the police investigation, and the courtroom drama of the trial, with history that documents the volatile America of the 1920's. He re-creates the Sweet family's inspirational journey from slavery through the Great Migration to the middle class. "Arc Of Justice" reads like a suspense thriller! I was riveted to the page. I thought I was relatively well informed about the Civil Rights Movement. However, I was amazed at how little I did know, especially about the period before the mid-1950's. I learned so much from this book about the significant and fascinating history of the Great Migration and many of the events which took place afterwards, especially in the North during the 1920's.
"I have always been interested in the colored people. I had lived in America because I wanted to...The ancestors of the Negroes came here because they were captured in Africa and brought to America in slave ships, and had been obliged to toil for three hundred years without reward. When they were finally freed from slavery they were lynched in court and out of court, and driven into mean, squalid outskirts and shanties because they were black....I realize that defending Negroes, even in the North, was no boy's job, although boys were usually given the responsibility."
With these words, Attorney Clarence Darrow, a civil libertarian, best known for defending John T. Scopes in the so-called "Monkey Trial," agreed to act as co-defense counsel for Dr. and Mrs. Ossian Sweet, as well as two of the doctor's brothers, Otis and Henry Sweet and seven of their friends and colleagues. They were all accused of conspiracy to commit murder, and murder in the first degree. The young, upright Sweet family's real crime was to buy a bungalow in a previously all-white working class neighborhood in Detroit, and move into their home, on September 8, 1925. A few friends and relatives helped them make the move and volunteered to remain with the family in case of trouble.
When rumors circulated of the purchase of the house on Garland Ave. by a Negro family, a new neighborhood improvement association was quickly formed. The newly appointed secretary arranged for a meeting to be held in the local school auditorium. The crowd of middle class whites attending overflowed the large room. This new organization was one of many neighborhood associations established across America, at that time, which "unleashed real estate market's arsenal of discriminatory practices, trying to impose restrictive constraints." The principal speaker for the meeting was a representative from another local group that had successfully driven African American, Dr. Alexander Turner, from his new home the month before. The message, "keep Garland safe from colored invasion."
The grandson of run-away slaves, Ossian Sweet put himself through college and medical school by stoking coal and waiting tables. Howard University, where he studied medicine, was the nation's preeminent black university. Although he had achieved the long-held dreams of his family, to become a respected member of the middle class, he still had terrifying memories from his childhood in Florida, of lynchings and unspeakable violence against black people. His childhood fears, exacerbated by his new neighbors' threats, propelled the doctor to invite his brothers and some friends to keep watch with him in case violence broke out. Sweet was well aware that his country was deeply divided, seething with hatred of minorities, (blacks in particular). The burgeoning presence of the Ku Klux Klan in the North, (by 1924, Detroit's Klan had 35,000 members), with their very public and menacing rallies, was extremely threatening. The summer of 1925 had been particularly hot. There was racial violence almost everywhere in urban Detroit. By the night of September 8, the tension in his neighborhood was palpable. Although frightened, Sweet thought he was ready to defend his home. He prepared himself for the expected mob and bought nine guns and enough ammunition for himself and the others, to be used only if necessary. He also notified the Detroit police of his planned move and asked for protection. The Sweet's infant daughter stayed at his wife's mother's home.
A crowd of 100 to 150 people gathered in front of the Sweet house for much of the night of September 8, but except for one barrage of rocks thrown against the house, no violence occurred. The next evening Gladys Sweet worked in the kitchen preparing a meal, while Ossian and his acquaintances played cards. At one point, they looked out the windows to see a swelling crowd filling the area surrounding their home - nearly 1000 people. According to the Sweets, stones began flying. The eleven people, shut up in the house on Garland Ave. were very nervous and afraid. Threats of violence and racial epithets were audible. Ossian Sweet said later, "the whole situation filled me with an appalling fear - a fear that no one could comprehend but a Negro, and that Negro, one who knew the history behind his people."
After rocks smashed through an upstairs window, shots were fired from the Sweet home. One of the bullets struck thirty-three-year-old Leon Breiner in the back as he stood nearby. Another man lay with a bullet wound to the leg. Six policeman, (who had been present at the time of the shooting, but did nothing to restrain the mob), entered the Sweet home and arrested the eleven occupants, including Gladys Sweet. At police headquarters, the Sweets and their friends were told, for the first time, that a man had been killed and another wounded. An assistant prosecutor informed them that he planned to recommend first degree murder warrants against all eleven, and then promptly jailed them.
From her jail cell, Gladys proclaimed, "Though I suffer and am torn loose from my fourteen-month-old baby, I feel it is my duty to the womanhood of my race. If I am freed I shall return and live at my home on Garland Avenue."
Author Boyle describes, brilliantly, how the end of WWI launched the Great Migration of Negroes from the rural South to the urban North. "There were 5700 blacks living in Detroit in 1910, 91,000 in New York City. Fifteen years later, Detroit had 81,000 black citizens, NYC almost 300,000." By 1925, Americans were deeply divided by hatred for those who were "different;" those who were not white and Protestant.
This popular history, which explores the politics of racism and the bitter battles within the nascent Civil Rights movement, compels the reader to keep turning the pages. The writing is fluid, intelligent and lyrical at times. "Arc Of Justice's" conclusion will, shock and surprise. There are 8 pages of color photographs included. This is one book I will keep and recommend highly to others. Kudos!
27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on September 18, 2004
Arc of Justice is a superbly crafted book, such good reading that it is hard to put it down. On top of that, the author, a member of the History Department at Ohio State University, is a real scholar, careful with his facts, well-grounded in the scholarly literature of American history, and--this is especially noteworthy--able to show the reader how the story of Ossian Sweet has a larger significance.
In sum, treat yourself to a great read! If this book does not get the most serious consideration possible for the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes, then there is no justice in this world
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2005
Kevin Boyle, in Arc of Justice, is very adept at creating a picture of a particular time and place, Detroit in the 1920s, that was the creation of the era that came before it and the harbinger of times to come. In 1925 a man, Ossian Sweet, is on trial for defending his property after moving into a white neighbourhood and he is defended by one of the most controversial men of his times, Clarence Darrow, but within this story are many strands stretching all across the country entangling many other vivid (and vividly portrayed) personalities. The author is amazingly effective in bringing into focus this complex story and the reader will be gripped by this true tale as both the KKK and the NAACP drift by. It is an intense, powerful read that shows, in many ways, how we got to where we are and how we have not gone as far as was once dreamed. That could be just some of Clarence Darrow's pessimism creeping in but it is hard not to be gripped by any encounter with that man, partiularly as well done as the one in this book. A very good piece of history.
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on January 16, 2005
There are times when a historical reconstruction is so outstanding that it achieves the level of art. This is one of the few descriptive histories that does, in my reading experience. I was utterly spellbound by the story - of a driven and talented black man who killed to defend himself and became a national figure during his trial - and enveloped in a narrative of both literary beauty and moral power. It is superlatively written, erudite, and thoroughly American.
The story begins with a young doctor, who buys a house in a working class district of Detroit. With the combination of fear that real estate values will fall and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in reaction to the new cosmopolitanism emerging in the Jazz Age, his neighbors gather into a mob to eject him - violently. But he is ready to defend himself with great courage and pride, and does so when the police fail to act. An apparently innocent man is killed, the doctor is arrested, and a complicated legal and political process begins.
The tableau that the author paints is richly textured with historical background and a cast of remarkable characters. He begins with a history of the failure of Reconstruction through the industrial revolution of mass manufacturing in the post World War I era. It is rivetting and evoked with great depth and literary elegance.
The personalities involved are unusual and first rate. There is Ossian, the doctor, whose psychology is intricately portrayed. Having witnessed a racial lynching in Florida as a boy, from a peasant family, he reaches the highest level possible for his station in 1920s American society - a professional doctor in Dubois' "talented tenth" who studied in Europe - and was determined to impress his young wife (and his peers) with his self-serving resolve. So against the advice of many and with the shallow promises of help from his colleague-peers, he bought a house in the white district and stuck to his guns.
Once the "self defense" incident took place, the NAACP got involved. There is James Weldon Johnson and his remarkable publicist, White, who saw the case as a way to test the American court systen to advance their race; it was a spectacular predessessor to what culminated in the 1950s. Both of them are unique for their talents - Johnson was a songwriter of Broadway hits and White wrote a bestselling novel in two weeks between journlist jobs - and devoted to advancing their race in a typically audacious American way in the courts.
Then there are Ossian's lawyers, first of all Clarence Darrow, but also many others, who challenged the legal apparatus as they enhanced their celebrity. I knew very little about Darrow and the others, and each mini-biography was revelation - and indeed an inspiration - to me. The case was of great legal significance, and the narrative loses nothing of its flow in the recounting of it. Finally, there is a good followup to what happened to all the characters, including the enigmatic Ossian, which adds additional perspective.
In sum, this is an absolutely first-rate book, a masterpiece of history investigation and, even better, plain good storytelling. I will never forget its depth and I hope the author continues.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on December 20, 2004
Didn't know anything about this book or the story it tells when I started reading it. My wife had purchased it, but she was still finishing off other books, and I had nothing left on my shelf, so I temporarily swiped this one from her. I was blown away.
I generally enjoy reading books about historical events, and found this one to be truly exceptional. The first chapter is as much of a "page-turner" as anything I've ever read, and after that lead, I could not dream of putting this book down until I found out what happened to these people.
Fortunately, the rest of the book is almost as compelling as the beginning. Boyle really makes 1925 Detroit and the characters in this story come alive. A masterful work of story-telling.
I did recently find out that this book won the National Book Award for non-fiction, an award it certainly merits. I couldn't give it a stronger recommendation.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on December 20, 2005
Arc of Justice starts out riveting and just gets better. I found myself thinking again and again, "this couldn't have happened" only to read the end notes and be astonished at the depth of research behind every word. The book started me on so many Google quests to find out more about Clarence Darrow, the NAACP, the AME church and other historical people, groups, and events that touched the lives of the people involved in this incident.
The reach back into the family history of the Sweet family is a deftly painted portrait of an African-American family striving for the American dream and could have been a book itself. I can't say enough about this book and have recommended to all my friends, history buffs and fiction lovers alike.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on December 16, 2008
Kevin Boyle's "Arc of Justice" is a riveting account of the Ossian Sweet case and subsequent trials, which were major events in the very early stages of the civil rights movement, long before Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC rose to prominence. Boyle recounts the events of the couple of days after the Sweets moved into a white Detroit neighborhood; Ossian Sweet's life to that point; the NAACP's involvement in preparing for the trials; and the brilliant performance of Clarence Darrow in both trials.
For the most part, this book reads like a novel, which would have had a happy ending if not for the epilogue reminding us that lives of African Americans very rarely ended happily for much of our history. Boyle's descriptions of the Sweets and their friends defending the house, as well as the goings-on outside the house, was edge-of-your-seat intense. He provided plenty of background on everyone involved, which helps the reader get into the story and care about the outcome.
Boyle also did a wonderful job of telling the racial history of Detroit, something students are unlikely to learn in the classroom. And he succeeded in bringing Darrow to life and explaining why the Great Defender wanted to be a part of the Sweet case. In so many ways, this book is a gem.
I have a couple of small complaints that only slightly, if at all, detract from the overall quality of the book. First, I did feel at times that Boyle strayed from the topic. I realize the Sweets were not the sole focus of the book, that the bigger picture of race and the impact of the NAACP were important as well. Still, I thought he occasionally drifted. And the other issue I had was that I thought Boyle fell into a trap that catches many historians -- hyperbole and assumption. I cringe when historians claim to know what someone was thinking at a certain moment some decades ago, and I believe a good story tells itself and doesn't need flowery language to make it interesting. In some instances, I wish Boyle had simply stuck to the known facts.
But these criticisms are insignificant, and the truth is, I loved the book. I learned a great deal from it and whenever I had to put it down, I was always eager to pick it back up. I'd recommend it to anyone.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on February 28, 2010
"Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age" depicts the life of one Ossian Sweet from his childhood in the Jim Crow South to his endeavors in the city of Detroit where racial tensions were at a peak in the 1920s. The story begins by keeping you on the edge of your seat as Sweet moved into his new home with his wife and child, accompanied by a band of friends whom open fire onto an angry mob. Excitement and suspense quell as the story continues and ultimately ends in the upmost tragedy when Sweet unexpectedly takes his life during the 1960s Civil Rights movement. Author Kevin Boyle accurately portrays the hardship of African Americans during the Jazz Age, though the manner in which he does so does not keep the attention of the reader throughout the duration of the novel. Court proceedings and other events are drawn out much longer than necessary with more background information than anything else. The facts and main points of the book are valid which makes "Arc of Justice..." a valuable source for an inside look at an era marked by the contrasting factors of hope and opportunity versus fear and violence.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
This book reminded me a lot of "Big Trouble," with its dramatic account of a trial with a huge cast of characters. Boyle does an excellent job of weaving together numerous storylines, and indeed there the storylines are numerous. Almost everyone involved in the trial had different agenda, and these agenda did not necessarily always converge.
On its surface, the question at hand was "does a person have the right to defend his own property against a lawless mob?" beneath the surface, there was also taking place a struggle for political power within the hierarchy of Detroit, as well as a struggle within the nascient civil rights movement. The Ku Klux Klan was looking to expand its influence in the urban North, and the NAACP was struggling to get itself on solid financial footing & establish itself as a legitimate force for social change. Additionally, there was the question of stemming the tide of neighborhood segregation, not to mention controlling the rise of mob violence, which concerned many people who weren't necessarily supporters of civil rights.
The actual trials are a relatively small part of the book. Boyle, being a good historian, is looking at the bigger picture of this trial's lasting impact & the collision of opposing forces of history. He points out that the result of the trial, on the surface a victory for Dr. Sweet, was in many ways a
Pyrrhic victory, both in a personal sense as well as culturally. The very ambitious Dr. Sweet saw his personal & professional life unravel in the years following the trial, and Boyle observes that the neighborhoods of Detroit remain among the most segregated in the nation.
However, it is almost impossible to imagine my neighbors organizing themselves into a mob with the purpose of driving me, or anyone else, out of the neighborhood under the threat of injury or death. That much at least has been achieved. That such mob violence was once commonplace is evidence that this forgotten trial did make a difference to us all, and Boyle is to be commended for bringing it back to life for us.