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The tragedy before triumph

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Steve Oney is the author of "And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank," winner of the American Bar Assn.'s 2004 Silver Gavel Award for best book on the nation's legal system.

On the brutally hot evening of Sept. 9, 1925, a crowd of several hundred men and women, all of them white, gathered at Garland Avenue and Charlevoix Street, an intersection midway between Detroit’s gritty urban center and Grosse Pointe, its richest suburb. A black couple had purchased the Craftsman bungalow that stood there. Though a dozen police officers were on hand to protect the newcomers and a group of black supporters -- who, unbeknown to the lawmen, were heavily armed -- the night quickly turned violent. Amid angry shouts, a barrage of rocks and coal chunks hit the house, shattering several windows. The responding fusillade of gunfire from within left a white foreman at the Continental Motor Co. dead and a young white plumber severely wounded.

The episode was both the culmination of months of racial tension in Detroit and the beginning of a series of courtroom and public relations battles that would engage black Americans nationwide and lead to the formation of the NAACP’s influential Legal Defense Fund. At stake were two crucial issues: the right of blacks to buy homes in previously all-white neighborhoods and their right to take the same measures accorded to whites to protect themselves and their property. That each of the 11 black people in the bungalow at the time of the shootings was charged with first-degree murder made the matter more than academic.

The fascinating character at the center of this tale, which Kevin Boyle tells in “Arc of Justice” with thoroughness, flair and for the most part even-handedness, is Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black physician who in the summer of 1925 bought the house on Garland Avenue. In Boyle’s account, Sweet emerges as an emblematic black American, one whose life is simultaneously a testament to the great successes enjoyed by members of the race during the early years of the 20th century and a reminder that those successes offered few of the guarantees to full citizenship taken for granted by whites.

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A grandson of slaves and the namesake of a racially progressive white Florida governor named Ossian Hart, Sweet was endowed with a birthright of hope and despair. He was raised just outside of Orlando by proud, hardworking parents and grew up, in Boyle’s perceptive turn of phrase, viewing their “aspirations [as] his obligations.” In 1909, Sweet enrolled at Wilberforce University, near Xenia, Ohio, the nation’s first private college dedicated to higher education for blacks. In 1917, after receiving his undergraduate degree, he took an even bigger step, entering Howard University’s medical school in Washington, D.C., the country’s foremost training facility for black physicians. After graduation, Sweet chose to practice in Detroit, where he’d spent summers working at odd jobs. Marriage to a well-bred local girl and a year in Vienna and Paris, where he studied under renowned neurosurgeon Anton von Eiselsberg and Nobel-Prize-winning radiologist Marie Curie, put an added polish on the newly minted medical degree, granting him entree to the group of elite black Americans that W.E.B. Du Bois had memorably christened “the talented tenth.”

Notwithstanding Sweet’s accomplishments, he was an uncertain young man. Unlike many other outstanding blacks of his generation, he was not the product of a sophisticated Northern city. His formative years were passed in the rural South, and he remained socially awkward. Moreover, his childhood was haunted by lynchings. In 1901, a 16-year-old black boy suspected of the rape and murder of a white woman was chained to a tree near the Sweets’ home and burned to death by a white mob. Ossian, who was only 5 at the time, carried the memory of the atrocity with him for the rest of his days.

The hope, of course, was that Detroit, with its booming automobile industry and rapidly growing population, would be different, and in many ways it was. The city boasted a growing black middle class, and a number of its white leaders were racial moderates. Yet 1925 found Detroit in the throes of a campaign by the local Ku Klux Klan, with nearly 40,000 members, to take political control of city hall. The resulting atmosphere in white, working-class sections of town -- where, according to Boyle, homeowners lived in well-founded fear of the dizzying decline in property values that just one black neighbor would set off -- was exceedingly volatile. All that was needed was a spark.

The violence on Garland Avenue, tragic as it was for everyone involved (Leon Breiner, the slain automobile foreman, was an innocent bystander), would have remained a Detroit story had it not been for James Weldon Johnson, the charismatic executive secretary of the NAACP. Johnson, whose organization was preparing to challenge discriminatory housing covenants before the U.S. Supreme Court, was looking for a sensational case to use in an accompanying fundraising effort. After reading about what had happened on Garland Avenue, he sent Walter White, his most valued staff member, to investigate. White, whose light skin and blue eyes allowed him to infiltrate racial hot spots and whose skills as a writer brought the battles along the color line to vivid light, immediately recognized that in the plight of Ossian Sweet and his co-defendants (among them the doctor’s wife) the NAACP had found exactly what it was seeking. Boyle does a good job depicting the tactics Johnson and White employed to transform the Sweet case into a cause celebre. “Johnson never failed to link the Sweet case and the Supreme Court challenge,” he notes. “The manipulation of pride and pathos slipped smoothly into appeals for financial support.” Boyle’s portrayal of the lawyer the NAACP hired to defend the Detroit 11 is equally compelling.

In the fall of 1925, Clarence Darrow was at the top of his form and his reputation. Earlier in the year, he had seized headlines by championing evolution over creationism in what came to be known as the Scopes monkey trial. After a meeting with Johnson and White in the Greenwich Village apartment of Arthur Garfield Hays, his co-counsel on the Scopes case, he agreed to represent Sweet and the others for a reduced fee.

Typically, Darrow’s advocacy was marked by both roguishness and superb legal work. When not in court, he caroused with the city’s free thinkers and, even as his wife looked on, attempted to seduce pretty Detroit bohemians. In court, he gave his all to selecting sympathetic jurors (few contemporary jury consultants could match Darrow in voir dire) and then to dismantling the state’s arguments. In the course of two hotly contested trials (the first ended with a hung jury), he adroitly established that not only had threats against the Sweets been mounting for weeks in advance of the day they moved in (hence the armed supporters) but that the police had coached witnesses to testify that the enormous crowd on Garland Avenue the night of the shootings totaled no more than a dozen people and therefore did not constitute a danger. Furthermore, Darrow emphasized the darkness at the heart of the Sweet case. “Prejudices,” he exclaimed, “have burned men at the stake, broken them on the rack, torn every joint apart, destroyed people by the million.... Prejudice, even now, is reaching out to undermine this republic of ours.” The second trial produced an acquittal for all 11 defendants.

Though the Sweet verdict was a triumph for the defendants and for black America, any joy was short-lived. Not only was Ossian Sweet’s subsequent life a series of travails but 40 years would pass before enactment of federal legislation banning discrimination in home sales. Still, this was a significant early victory. Save for occasional didacticism (Boyle too often uses the loaded word “pogrom” to describe such hostile acts against blacks as 1919 riots in Charleston, S.C., and Phillips County, Ark., that, while horrific, did not have as their goal the extermination of the race), “Arc of Justice” does justice both to its complex protagonists and the issues they embraced. Masterfully weaving crime reporting and social history, Boyle has produced a fine and moving work. *


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