Arc of Justice Summary

Kevin Boyle

Arc of Justice

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Arc of Justice Summary

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Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle is a 2004 non-fiction book about race relations in Detroit in the 1920, as told through the story of Ossian Sweet.

Sweet, raised by former slaves, began life in segregated Florida, where, at the age of five, he witnessed the lynching of a black male teenager. He later moved at age thirteen to Ohio to escape the Jim Crow South. There, he completed high school and college at Wilberforce University before being accepted into the prestigious all-black Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C. During the course of his studies he also lived abroad in Vienna and Paris.

Once he graduated, Sweet and his wife lived with her parents for a year while raising money for a down payment on a house. They then proceeded to purchase a house in an all-white working class neighborhood in Detroit. Sweet had heard of other violence in similar situations, so was anticipating conflict. In the wake of World War I, northern cities, especially Detroit, had seen shifting demographics heavily resisted by the white population. During the war, many factory jobs had been left open by men enlisting, leaving openings for African Americans from the South. Additionally, the newly created automobile market created a vast number of good manufacturing jobs (which were much better than alternatives, such as sharecropping). Most of Detroit’s African American population, especially newcomers, settled into an area known as Black Bottom, which was very poorly maintained, fostered disease, and was actually more expensive than surrounding areas, as the inhabitants didn’t have the choice to live in other white areas. While Sweet had grown up poor, his wife had been born into a mixed middle class environment, and he therefore could not see himself settling into Black Bottom and purchased a home on all-white Garland Avenue. White families feared new residents not just out of racism, but also out of a fear of devalued homes. A single black family could easily downgrade the values of an entire neighborhood of houses, and white families feared eviction.

So it was that the night that the Sweets moved in, he arranged to have several friends and relatives stay with him for the first few days for protection. And so, on September 9, 1925, the Sweets’ second night in their new home, a mob of several hundred people descended upon the house. In the ensuing scuffle, the mob threw stones through the windows and the inhabitants of the house responded with gunfire, killing one man and injuring another. Sweet and ten of his friends and relatives were arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

The trial that followed presented a perfect opportunity for America’s race relations to play out on a national stage. The Ku Klux Klan had narrowly missed appointing its candidate to the mayorship in the most recent election, and was hoping to expand its political power in Detroit through the story of an “innocent” white man’s death at the hands of black men. Meanwhile, the fairly new NAACP also saw the case as an opportunity to help establish a legal fund as well as fight on the frontier of housing discrimination.

The NAACP hired Clarence Darrow, arguably the most famous defense attorney in the country. The first trial resulted in a hung jury, and the NAACP feared it wouldn’t be able to afford a second trial. However, the media coverage had so galvanized supporters that donations poured in, and as hoped, a permanent legal fund was founded and the second trial was underway.

Darrow fought the case through careful jury selection, successfully getting KKK members dismissed, as well as tenacious cross-examining of white witnesses that showcased just how thoroughly police had coached them. By bringing Sweet himself to the stand to tell his life story, Darrow made the case symbolic of generations of racial oppression. Sweet’s clear fear and history of racism made acquittal an indictment of prejudice, and an innocent verdict was won for all parties.

Though an acquittal was won, and the hold of the KKK over Detroit’s politics seemed to disintegrate, it was not the turning point activists had hoped for. The next year, the Supreme Court ruled against the NAACP’s case to forbid residential segregation. It wasn’t until 1968 that Congress passed the Fair Housing Act. And tragically, Sweet’s wife and child died from tuberculosis caught in jail and, unable to pay taxes on their hard-won house, Sweet shot himself in 1960. Detroit itself remains one of the most racially segregated cities in America.

Arc of Justice is a character-rich study of America at one its cultural turning points. Sweet’s story represents the progress of black Americans from slavery to the middle class, but also the deep challenges that continued to face them throughout the 20th century. As noted by Publisher’s Weekly, Arc of Justice “brilliantly rescued from obscurity a fascinating chapter in American history that had profound implications for the rise of the Civil Rights movement.” Boyle’s detailed study shows the foundation of the 1960s Civil Rights movement in the battles and shifting demographics of early 20th century America.