black history, the emphasis is on the events leading up to the Civil War or the advances made during the 1960s. Arc of Justice instead covers race relations in the 1920s through the experiences and court trial of Ossian Sweet, a black physician charged with murder for protecting himself, wife and child from a Detroit mob that was terrorizing their home. The event led to the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense Fund and nationwide action on residential segregation. The history contained in the book is interesting, but more so are the portrayals of the people involved. The author, Kevin Boyle, shows all sides of individuals as Sweet as well as defense attorney Clarence Darrow, NAACP assistant secretary Walter White, and the prosecutor Robert Toms.
Sweet became the tragic hero of an incident that he would have done anything to evade. He was raised in a poor family in Florida: His grandparents had been slaves, and his mother and father only had a small plot of land. As dedicated members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Sweet's parents sent him to the related college in Ohio called Wilberforce University. When receiving his university degree, he was more educated than most other Americans of any race, since so very few people went to college in the early 1900s. However, he still wanted to go further and attended medical school at Howard University in Washington D.C.
Although hailed in the black newspapers as a national symbol of the "new Negro militancy," he was anything but. As Boyle notes, his hunger for status had as much to do with his decision to buy the Garland Avenue house as bravery or principle. Instead, Sweet was an insecure striver, a type of "ebony Babbitt," driven by his family and African Methodist Episcopal faith in self-improvement to break into the "Talented Tenth," the black elite that W.E.B. Du Bois said would lead the race. He believed he deserved the best and did not mind showing off his success and accomplishments. The decision to buy the home on Garland was due in large part because he did not want to live in the poor black neighborhoods. It was not the best area in Detroit, but it was the nicest house on the block in a safe neighborhood. It was across from the school his daughter would attend when older. If Sweet had seen the future, his decisions would have been made much differently.
Boyle shows all sides of Sweet, including his arrogant tendencies and desires for self-aggrandizement and believing himself better than most blacks who never were part of the Talented Tenth. Boyle also stresses how the heroic posturing by Sweet for the newspapers and courts was put on well after violence at his home was less vivid in his mind: "But he began to see the road he had followed to Garland Avenue as much straighter, his steps more purposeful, than they had actually been" (247). Gladys was also swept up in the excitement, "Her days were filled with requests from Darrow and Hays, filtered through Walter White, for information to track down and witnesses to secure, and with appearances at NAACP meetings, Sunday rallies, and, for one poignant evening, a benefit at the Arcadia Ballroom, where she sat with the other defendants' wives watching couples twirl round the dance floor as she and Ossian had done the night they met" (247).
Because of what he had witnessed as a boy, Sweet had not wanted to become party to such hatred and violence. However, the trial encouraged him to become more involved with the black cause, but then he had no choice. Such as statement is not made to be demeaning: Only to show that Sweet, too, was a complex person with many concerns battling his psyche.
Unfortunately, the strain became too great for him. When he was free from the murder charge and out of the limelight, both his daughter and Gladys died from tuberculosis and he became more troubled. "When Ossian Sweet brought the house on Garland Avenue in the spring of 1925, he imagined his family living a life free of segregation's most crushing burdens. But there was no escape" (344).
Continuing his personal search, Sweet later married and divorced twice. He also treated several Black Bottom teenagers with the "sort of backbreaking labor he had performed when young." He unsuccessfully ran for president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP against the men who had defended him five years later. In addition, he was defeated in races for the state Senate and U.S. Congress. When his finances finally failed him, Sweet sold his house to black Southern migrants and lived in a Ghetto apartment. One could well imagine what this did to someone who had tried so hard to break out of the system. Right before the Civil Rights movement would move through the country, he committed suicide.
When hearing the name Clarence Darrow, one is immediately reminded of the Scopes trial for which he received so much attention. Darrow did care about his causes, but he also was driven by success and ego. Sweet's case was made for him: Darrow's parents had been part of the abolitionist generation of the 1850's, and the murder trial gave him the opportunity to once again display his politics. Also, he had constructed his whole career around attacking the wrongs of America, and racism was one of the worst.
Most of the time, Darrow was a godsend for the NAACP. The publicity made the Sweet case a national cause and helped raise significant amounts of money. Also, Darrow nearly worked for free, which also built up the legal defense fund. Hiring Darrow also promoted the support of the liberal white opinion makers. For example, stories started appearing in publications such as The Nation. Yet, "as much as he was moved by the plight of the masses, though, Darrow was truly driven by the attention that controversial cases won him" (234). Also, the question remained whether or not Darrow would win. After all, he did not have a completely successful track record, because he had had some very tough clients to defend. Darrow's grandstanding and womanizing were also noted by Boyle as part of the lawyer's character.
Although the story centered around Sweet's trial, the broader picture was also about the rise of the NAACP and how the organization and its leaders used this murder as a vehicle to build support and the defense fund. If Sweet's situation had not arisen, another cause would have been found instead. Ironically, he just happened to be at the right place at the right time.
As soon as the NAACP leaders heard of Sweet's attempt to defend his home, they knew here was "a case that boldly challenges the liberties, the hopes, and the aspirations of fifteen million colored Americans" (225). For northern blacks and those coming from the south after fleeing from the Jim Crow constraints, residential segregation in northern cities was one of the most pressing issues of the 1920s. As NAACP would repeatedly state over the next few years, Sweet seemed to epitomize the "New Negro" of the postwar era, the man who would no longer quietly accept the type of violence that had been inflicted upon the blacks in the past. In Sweet's case, the NAACP recognized a historic opportunity to show the country the difficulties of being black and trying to lead a normal existence with a family and home. "Case is dramatic high point of nationwide issue of segregation in which National Association for Advancement of Colored People has case now pending in United States Supreme Court. Stop," Johnson cabled to Darrow. "This issue constitutes a supreme test of the constitutional guarantees of American Negro citizens. Stop" (p. 229).
Boyle uses much of the book to introduce major figures of Talented-Tenth politics in the 1920s such as W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson and Walter White. Similar to Sweet, Boyle clearly, but light-handedly, shows that these individuals also did not like to be too closely aligned with their dark-skinned, southern-born brothers and sisters. On the other hand, Boyle also paints them as heroes who did whatever they could to change the situation for the blacks. They always knew that they, too, could have just as easily been in a situation such as that experienced by Sweet.
Nor was everyone in it for the betterment of the blacks. Thomas Chawke, for example, was very clear from the start that he "saw such work as nothing more than business." He was "not the sort of man Walter White imagined representing the NAACP in the climatic battle of its fight for justice in the urban North (315). When the trial was over, "Thomas Chawke showed no inclination to pursue public service ... he happily returned to his usual line up of unsavory clients."
Overall, it was NAACP leader Walter White who came across as the most caring,…