History Of America And Detroit History Essay
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
I’ve never been to Detroit, but novelist Kevin Boyle made me feel as if I had been there during the Jazz age, amidst the saga of race and civil rights that took place during the 1920’s. The book Arc of Justice chronicles Ossian Sweet an African American physician who journeys with his family from the South to a previously all white neighborhood in Detroit in hopes of finding better opportunities and a better life. Yet just after his arrival, he is all too soon reminded of the very prejudices he thought he was escaping. When a mob gathers outside Sweet’s home for the second night in a row and shots are fired, one white man lay dead. The story immediately gains National attention, and Sweet is jailed and put on trial for murder. The chain of events lead to famous attorney Clarence Darrow being called in to defend Sweet, and Sweet is propelled into the national spotlight and transformed into a controversial symbol of equality. Ossian Sweet’s story is an epic tale of one man trapped by the battles of his era’s changing times. I loved reading Arc of Justice, because despite it being a true story, it read like a suspense thriller. Arc of Justice provides a snapshot of a historical movement in our countries history and most importantly with any great book a page turner.
The front cover of the book Arc of Justice shows a faded black and white photo of what appears to be a crowded courtroom, with four males in the foreground facing off towards the right, seemingly awaiting a verdict. The four men, three white and one black, were dressed in suits, noticeably have their faces abraded, almost like an individual intentionally tampered with the original photo or tried to erase the faces while the photo was developing. Unfortunately that has been the case both literally and figuratively, the over 80 year old Ossian Sweet case has pretty much been erased from American history. However author Kevin Boyle a history professor well known for books regarding the labor movement, reconstructs what exactly took place in the life of Ossian Sweet, giving us a clearer picture of what happened during a dynamic time in our nation’s history.
Arc of Justice takes place in 1925 Detroit, a thriving city filled plagued with racial tension. During the height of the automotive industry, Detroit prospered and was called “America’s great boomtown.” The fourth largest city in the country Detroit became a beacon for blacks who wished to escape the Jim Crow laws in the South. The number of blacks living in Detroit between 1910 and 1925 increased 14 fold during those fifteen years. It is still to this day called The Great Migration, as it marked a mass movement of African Americans from the South to cities in the North. While the number of blacks in Detroit grew, the Klu Klux Klan grew as well by 1924 the Detroit branch of the Klan made up 35,000 members.
When Dr. Sweet and his wife Gladys purchase their new home on the east side of Detroit’s in an all white neighborhood, they quickly began receiving threats, Sweet having experienced racism all his life was aware there could be trouble and began taking defensive measures. Ossian brought and armed ten black men with guns and had asked them to stay in the house until the threats subsided. On September 9th 1925, a crowd of whites had gathered outside the Sweet home and began throwing rocks, which ricochet off the roof and also shattered windows. Suddenly shots were fired from a second floor window, and on the street below one white man lay dead and another wounded. The police response was swift, following the response eleven African Americans, one of whom is Sweet’s wife, all were brought to jail and brought up on charges of first-degree murder. Author Kevin Boyle makes it clear his immediate goal of moving his family was to get his family out of the black ghetto and in doing so provide a better quality of life for his family.
Author Kevin Boyle’s portrayal of the mob’s fury and the reaction of Ossian Sweet while being confronted is compelling. From the moment Sweet opens the door, to his reaction at seeing the mob which Boyle describes as, “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.” Boyle makes it clear that Sweet was not totally innocent he had prepared for trouble and was willing to take action if and when the situation called for it. A key question and chunk of the book is dedicated to answering the question of “Why would Sweet deliberately confront this mob?”
Almost the entire first half of Arc of Justice gives us enough background to formulate our answer to this question. By moving back in time author Kevin Boyle takes us on a journey of Ossian Sweet’s life, we witness everything with Sweet, from the treatment of blacks in the post slavery south, to the racism that still occurred in the North. We are there with Sweet while he witnesses the creation of black universities, lynching’s and race riots throughout the country. Arc of Justice is filled with these vivid examples of events that helped shape Ossian’s life, one particular event was when Ossian was only 5 years old, he when he witnessed a howling white mob burn a black teenager alive. While attending medical school at Howard’s University in 1919 in Washington D.C., Ossian watched gangs of white war veteran’s rampage down the streets beating and shooting blacks. Ossian knew early on in his life how pervasive racism was, even in Detroit a colleague told him firsthand how just hours after he had moved into a white neighborhood, a furious mob had ransacked his home and forced him to turn over the deed.
Something that impressed me with Arc of Justice was Kevin Boyle’s portrayal of Ossian Sweet. Ossian Sweet is the main character and while it would have been easy for author Kevin Boyle to idealize him, Boyle is clear to point out Sweet’s weaknesses. Ossian is an ambitious man, he knew at a very young age he wanted to be a doctor and lead a successful life. He is also a very proud individual, proud of himself and his achievements. However Boyle points out that Sweet is overly obsessed with status and material things, so much so that he often comes off as arrogant, cold and insecure. An example of this was when the mob is attacking his home Sweet is unsure what to do his first action is to get into bed and ignore it, Sweet “first slid off his shoes so as not to scuff the comforter, and lay down in the darkness, the pistol at his side.” This example shows a man insecure of himself, as well as a man concerned with his comforter when his home and potentially his family is under siege.
Ossian Sweet modeled himself in many ways after other successful educated black men, one particular person who helped shape Ossian Sweet’s life was W.E.B. Dubois. Several times in the book Dubois’ Talented Tenth is brought to mention. The Talented Tenth was a term coined by Dubois and envisioned a class of well educated, professional class of blacks who would be the ones to lead to racial equality. Sweet an African American with a medical degree considered himself amongst the talented tenth. As being part of this group he felt it was part of his responsibility to take action against institutionalized racism in Detroit. “To back down,” says 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, that he had no claim to a place among the Talented Tenth.” Ossian Sweet while being an idealistic individual regardless, but it is clear that he was also inspired along with many other individuals by Dubois, to bring upon a social movement and rally together to take action.
When we are taken back to the impending case being brought against Sweet and the other defendants we are given some historical background. The case before it even begins is touted by many as something of national importance regarding African Americans in this country. It also had political ramifications as Detroit’s mayor, Johnny Smith, was involved in a tight mayoral race against a Klansman. Minorities in Detroit became captivated by the simultaneous Sweet case and Mayoral trial, as segregation, racism and a growing Klu Klux Klan were all major issues in the city at that time. Even more attention was brought to the case when the fledgling NAACP and declared they would be representing Sweet and bringing one of their attorneys to defend him.
The first half of Arc of Justice is all about Ossian Sweet; the second half is almost entirely the trial which is led by the NAACP and its powerful defense attorney Clarence Darrow. The executive secretary of the NAACP James Weldon Johnson individually and deliberately chose the Sweet case as a way to gain support from its members and the general public to create its Legal Defense Fund. When the NAACP declared their involvement the case gained National Attention from all Americans not just blacks. Defense Attorney for Sweet, Clarence Darrow steals the spotlight for the remainder of the book, Darrow who previously gained notoriety as a labor lawyer in a previous trial named Scopes “Monkey Trial” gained national fame as a defender of civil rights following the Sweet trial. Boyle makes it very clear that both James Weldon Johnson and Clarence Darrow had interior motives for defending the Sweets. Both of these individuals had a love for the spotlight, when speaking about Darrow Boyle writes “in the glare of a high-profile case he found the perfect opportunity to attack the status quo and proclaim the modernist creed.”
The courtroom scenes involving Darrow were impressive, Darrow is a charismatic individual he speaks for six hours and is able to captivate the court bringing the courtroom to tears, in many ways it invoked for me the spirit of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. I would recommend this part of the book to students and professionals hoping to study law, the way that Darrow owns the entire court while he is speaking and when he is finished and it’s the defense attorneys chance to speak. The unfortunate defense attorneys closing argument, in the words of a spectator in the court, “reminded one of the clatters of folding chairs after a symphony concert.”
Although Sweet is proved innocent, any positive effects from the case for African Americans were slow to be seen. In a Supreme Court trial following Sweet’s the N.A.A.C.P. lost a case involving racial segregation. It wasn’t until 1968 when the Congress approved new legislation disallowing racial segregation in the sale of homes. However Boyle points out that the rhetorical value of the Sweet trial may have been more important. The Sweet case brought to light the prejudices that existed throughout the country and exposed them nationwide through the public media. According to Boyle the trial helped to persuade white America that racism and prejudice is something as a nation we should be ashamed. Following the case the Klux Klux Klan began to deteriorate in Detroit and other parts of the Country. Frank Murphy The judge who presided over the Sweet Case was elected to Mayor following the Case and later became appointed to the Supreme Court. Ironically even the prosecutor of the case joined the N.A.A.C.P later in his career.
Arc of Justice could be made into a movie; however it would be depressing as the ending is melancholy. After the trials concluded, life for the Sweets was not as joyous as they had hoped. Ossian’s wife Gladys and their daughter Iva contracted tuberculosis; which Gladys caught during her incarceration in a Detroit jail. Iva died shortly after getting the disease and Gladys moved away from Ossian to Tucson Arizona to benefit from the drier climate. Gladys returned home only to spend her final days with her husband Ossian. Ossian left his practice in 1929 to run hospitals in Detroit’s ghettos but none of them ever did well. In 1930, he ran for the NAACP presidency in the Detroit branch only to lose by a wide margin. In 1939 Ossian lost his brother to Tuberculosis and his finances began dwindling, overcome by debt Ossian spiraled in physical and mental decline. On March 20th 1960 Ossian went into the bedroom of his home and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
The only weakness I had towards Arc of Justice is Kevin Boyle never challenges the defense’s side of the story at all in the trial. In the book the defense is clear and true, and the prosecutions argument is too easily dismissed as false, that that there was no mob and that the two men shot were innocent people passing by. The case aside from Darrow is actually very weak, with little to no defense testimony from witnesses to substantiate the case and concerns that might come to mind. Also for someone just picking up the book to read they might not be aware until later on in the book that Boyle takes so much background information weaving individuals, local politics, the national civil rights movement into the book that it can be at times overwhelming. Boyle also takes the position that much of America’s failure to solve the race problems that exist should be blamed on America’s black lawyer’s including Darrow. Boyle argues that racism is a structural problem and that these black lawyers had an obligation to challenge the structural problems of racism imbedded in our nation’s organizations and institutions and not to just use goodwill to win trials which is what Boyle claims black defenders during this period did. Boyle argues that “They simply shrugged their shoulders and said they didn’t know what could be done about it,” “Racism was a personal failing, after all, to be solved by understanding, by civility, by a softening of the human heart.” Ironically Detroit today remains America’s most segregated city.
Kevin Boyle in Arc of Justice is able to pose a connection of racism when Arc of Justice took place with racial problems that exist in the north even to this day. Boyle proposes that problems of racism in the north were inherently economical. The fact that when blacks moved into white neighborhoods brought down real estate values, so whites collectively resisted African Americans moving into their neighborhoods and thus confining them to ghetto’s. While outright racism and prejudice was not as severe as the South, the shadow of Jim Crow could still be felt abetted by “economic structures that transformed hatred into organized violence,” Such as property deed clauses barring blacks from owning them. In a contemporary America still trying to come to grips with its racist past and the hope for a society where racism and prejudice does not exist Arc of Justice is a story worth reading.
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