Story of fear, racism and murder in 1925 Detroit

December 19, 2004|By Michael Ollove

Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age

By Kevin Boyle. Henry Holt. 416 pages. $26.

Young Dr. Ossian Sweet couldn't escape the terrors of being black in early 20th century America. From the immolation of a black fugitive near his childhood home in Florida, to racist riots in Washington, where he was a medical student at Howard University, to the ugly intimidation of friends in Detroit who had dared cross the residential color line, racial violence was recurrent imagery for the aspiring Ossian.

Undoubtedly those terrifying visions were uppermost in his mind on the stifling Detroit summer night in 1925 when an inflamed white mob advanced on Ossian's Garland Street home, intent on turning back this black encroachment into their neighborhood. When shots blasted from a second-floor bedroom and a white man fell dead on the street below, to Ossian it must have seemed consummation of the nightmare playing in his head his whole life long.

The events of that fearful night -- as well as their bitter context and weighty aftermath -- are the subject of Ohio State University historian Kevin Boyle's gripping Arc of Justice, the recipient of this year's National Book Award for nonfiction. Boyle's nerve-rattling rendering of Ossian Sweet's ordeal could easily stand alone as a courtroom thriller, but its more valuable achievement lies in filling overlooked gaps in the history of the civil rights movement between the Civil War and the great struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.

An aspect of that history concerns the migration of racism to urban America, including, of course, in the North. In fact, as Boyle delineates, the concentration of population in the cities focused racial hostility in a way that had been unknown in the rural South. Racism pervaded there, of course, but whites didn't generally fear that blacks would move into the house next door.

It was a different story in the cities, bursting with growing populations but with a dearth of decent housing. African-Americans who could afford something better than disease-ridden, overcrowded, filthy tenements often had no choice but to try to move into all-white neighborhoods, where they were sure to run into hostility and often worse.

The murder trial of Ossian -- an egotistical, somewhat unsympathetic hero -- his more admirable wife, Gladys, and the nine others who had come to defend the Sweets' home, was a crucible event for a young NAACP. Its leader, the regal James Weldon Johnson, and his brilliant, resourceful chief functionary, Walter White, recognized that the Sweet case could be the fulcrum for a national crusade on civil rights.

But to become that, they needed the star power of the most celebrated lawyer in the country, and that is what they got in Clarence Darrow, the "Great Defender," fresh off his mesmerizing performance in the Scopes case. Boyle resurrects this spellbinding, flawed, complex figure, an aging, still dangerous lion who elevated the Sweet trial from a murder case into a showpiece on the re-institutionalization of racism in America, illuminating the nation's darkest nature.

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