Arc of justice : a saga of race, civil rights, and murder in the Jazz Age

by Kevin Boyle

Hardcover, 2004




New York : H.Holt, 2004.


An electrifying story of the sensational murder trial that divided a city and ignited the civil rights struggle In 1925, Detroit was a smoky swirl of jazz and speakeasies, assembly lines and fistfights. The advent of automobiles had brought workers from around the globe to compete for manufacturing jobs, and tensions often flared with the KKK in ascendance and violence rising. Ossian Sweet, a proud Negro doctor-grandson of a slave-had made the long climb from the ghetto to a home of his own in a previously all-white neighborhood. Yet just after his arrival, a mob gathered outside his house; suddenly, shots rang out: Sweet, or one of his defenders, had accidentally killed one of the whites threatening their lives and homes. And so it began-a chain of events that brought America's greatest attorney, Clarence Darrow, into the fray and transformed Sweet into a controversial symbol of equality. Historian Kevin Boyle weaves the police investigation and courtroom drama of Sweet's murder trial into an unforgettable tapestry of narrative history that documents the volatile America of the 1920s and movingly re-creates the Sweet family's journey from slavery through the Great Migration to the middle class. Ossian Sweet'sstory, so richly and poignantly captured here, is an epic tale of one man trapped by the battles of his era's changing times. Arc of Justiceis the winner of the 2004 National Book Award for Nonfiction.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member mbergman
A magnificent account of the trial for murder of 11 African Americans who were defending the home of a couple who had moved into a white neighborhood in Detroit in 1925 (at the height of the KKK's power) when one or more of them fired into the mob outside the house, killing one pystander & injuring another. It's a dramatic story that Boyle tells very well, sets in context expertly & accessibly, & fills with a colorful cast of characters, including the insecure & unlikely heroes, Dr. Ossia Sweet & his self-assured young wife, NAACP execs James Weldon Johnson & ____ White, Clarence Darrow, Frank Murphy, & (to a lesser extent) Reinhold Niebuhr. We had a really good discussion of the book among our "salon" group of historians, & we were unanimous in admiring the book.… (more)
LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
A fine history of a case I knew absolutely nothing about, but now am off in search of more info. I recommend it very highly, but keep in mind that this is not a novel, but a history, and that as such, even though it moves quickly, there are times when the author doesn't go from point A to point B as in a novel but stops to present factors that led up to this period in time.

The case in question begins in 1925 in Detroit, when Dr. Ossian Sweet and his wife move into a house that is outside the boundaries of the "colored" area (I'm just using the terminology in the book here which was appropriate to the time period). Ossian, his wife Gladys, Ossian's brother Henry & some friends were over at the house all preparing to eat the first meal in their new house when a neighborhood mob moved in front of the house & began pelting the house with stones etc. They prepared themselves for the worst, but nothing more happened. On the second night, Ossian was ready. He had gathered the same people & a few more (at that time 11 total in the house), and when the mob gathered again and the rocks started flying and actually broke windows in the house, Henry & whoever was upstairs with him started firing into the crowd, killing one man & wounding another. The police took everyone in the house in custody, & eventually all 11 were charged with murder or conspiracy to commit murder. The state contended that there was no mob at all and that Ossian's brother & friends had fired into the crowd unprovoked, killing a man. Eventually the group was put into prison, awaiting trial, and were ultimately defended by Clarence Darrow.

That's the central case; what this book does is to examine the factors behind the allegations, and to examine the motivation of Ossian's neighbors as they worked themselves into mob frenzy. It also looks at racial attitudes on both sides of the coin prevalent at the time, politics both locally in Detroit and nationally, the use of this case by the NAACP, among other issues. In telling Ossian's story, the author also goes into Ossian's family history, as well as that of his wife Gladys from slavery onward, and the history of racial attitudes both North and South.

For example, Boyle goes into great detail about the southern migration of blacks to the north and their attempts to escape Jim Crow only to find themselves victims of the same types of prejudices. Specifically discussing Detroit, the author goes into great detail explaining that the police department was filled with KKK members; he explains the economics behind why, beyond the simple reason of prejudice, white people did not want blacks in their neighborhoods and what happened to those African-Americans who moved into those neighborhoods; he also goes into the politics involved in organizing a defense for the 11 accused & battles fought based on this case against segregation in all aspects of life.

It is really a captivating story, backed up by personal interviews & other primary sources as well as other references. I definitely think if you are interested in the topics of segregation, civil rights, racial attitudes or the workings of the NAACP, you will not want to miss this book.
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LibraryThing member PARB
I highly recommend this book. This book held my interest from beginnning to end. It gives the reader a clear understanding of early 20th century Detroit.

It was also fun to read the background of historic national and local names so familiar today. For instance, Frank Murphy and Clarence Darrow.… (more)
LibraryThing member fieldsli
This is a story of events that led to a significant episode in the history of race relations in this country as well as a study of how the two most outstanding players, Ossian Sweet and Clarence Darrow wore their mantles of heroism.
LibraryThing member lamour
In 1925 Detroit, Dr. Ossian Sweet bought a house in an all white neighborhood. The Ku Klux Klan as well as other white supremacists moved in and agitated their future neighbours to keep them from moving into their new house. During the second night of riots, the terrorized Afro-Americans fired shots at the crowd killing one man. Arrested and jailed, the NAACP and other organizations fought to give the defendants a fair trial eventually bringing in Clarence Darrow to lead the defense team.

Even though they were eventually acquitted of the killing on grounds of self-defense, the cost was high for Sweet. While in jail, his wife contacted TB, passed it on to her baby and both eventually died. It was years before he actually lived in the house.

While the murder trial is the focus of the book but in setting up the scene, Boyle gives us an excellent history of Jim Crow and how it was making its way to the Northern states in the early years of the 20th Century. This is not a period of US history Americans can be proud of. It still has consequences for American cities today with their segregated neighbourhoods. A tough subject to read about but Boyle does a wonderful job of keeping the reader fascinated by the material.
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LibraryThing member gbelik
This book takes place in 1925 Detroit. A black family moves into a white neighborhood and violence ensues. The story is well told and ranges beyond Detroit to deal in general with residential segregation.
LibraryThing member alancaro
I listened to this magnum opus on CD and was absolutely transfixed. This book is a must read for anybody who lives in the North and thinks they know the story of racism in the 19th and 20th centuries in the Northern States.
LibraryThing member RebeccaReader
Loved this book. A black family moves into an all-white neighborhood. They and their friends are threatened, defend themselves, are charged with murder, and...well, read it to find out what happens. Boyle does an excellent job of taking the reader back to a time that seems both "long ago" and "just yesterday."



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