Kevin Boyle

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

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie JUL 15, 2005)

Kevin Boyle, a history professor, and National Book Award-winning author of Arc of Justice: A Saga of Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, has written the best true crime book I have ever read, including Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

A Detroit native, Boyle tells one of the city's most important civil rights episodes - the September night in 1925 when black people took up arms to defend their home from a white mob. His narrative of the sensational murder trial, which ignited the Civil Rights Movement, is electrifying! Boyle's research is meticulous. He interweaves the incidents leading up to the murder, the police investigation, and the courtroom drama of the trial, with history that documents the volatile America of the 1920's. He re-creates the Sweet family's inspirational journey from slavery through the Great Migration to the middle class. Arc Of Justice reads like a suspense thriller; I was riveted to the page. I thought I was relatively well informed about the Civil Rights Movement, however, I was amazed at how little I did know, especially about the period before the mid-1950's. I learned so much from this book about the significant and fascinating history of the Great Migration and many of the events which took place afterwards, especially in the North during the 1920's.

"I have always been interested in the colored people. I had lived in America because I wanted to...The ancestors of the Negroes came here because they were captured in Africa and brought to America in slave ships, and had been obliged to toil for three hundred years without reward. When they were finally freed from slavery they were lynched in court and out of court, and driven into mean, squalid outskirts and shanties because they were black....I realize that defending Negroes, even in the North, was no boy's job, although boys were usually given the responsibility."

With these words, Attorney Clarence Darrow, a civil libertarian, best known for defending John T. Scopes in the so-called "Monkey Trial," agreed to act as co-defense counsel for Dr. and Mrs. Ossian Sweet, as well as two of the doctor's brothers, Otis and Henry Sweet and seven of their friends and colleagues. They were all accused of conspiracy to commit murder, and murder in the first degree. The young, upright Sweet family's real crime was to buy a bungalow in a previously all-white working class neighborhood in Detroit, and move into their home, on September 8, 1925. A few friends and relatives helped them make the move and volunteered to remain with the family in case of trouble.

When rumors circulated of the purchase of the house on Garland Ave. by a Negro family, a new neighborhood improvement association was quickly formed. The newly appointed secretary arranged for a meeting to be held in the local school auditorium. The crowd of middle class whites attending overflowed the large room. This new organization was one of many neighborhood associations established across America, at that time, which "unleashed real estate market's arsenal of discriminatory practices, trying to impose restrictive constraints." The principal speaker for the meeting was a representative from another local group that had successfully driven African American, Dr. Alexander Turner, from his new home the month before. The message, "keep Garland safe from colored invasion."

The grandson of run-away slaves, Ossian Sweet put himself through college and medical school by stoking coal and waiting tables. Howard University, where he studied medicine, was the nation's preeminent black university. Although he had achieved the long-held dreams of his family, to become a respected member of the middle class, he still had terrifying memories from his childhood in Florida, of lynchings and unspeakable violence against black people. His childhood fears, exacerbated by his new neighbors' threats, propelled the doctor to invite his brothers and some friends to keep watch with him in case violence broke out. Sweet was well aware that his country was deeply divided, seething with hatred of minorities, (blacks in particular). The burgeoning presence of the Ku Klux Klan in the North, (by 1924, Detroit's Klan had 35,000 members), with their very public and menacing rallies, was extremely threatening. The summer of 1925 had been particularly hot. There was racial violence almost everywhere in urban Detroit. By the night of September 8, the tension in his neighborhood was palpable. Although frightened, Sweet thought he was ready to defend his home. He prepared himself for the expected mob and bought nine guns and enough ammunition for himself and the others, to be used only if necessary. He also notified the Detroit police of his planned move and asked for protection. The Sweet's infant daughter stayed at his wife's mother's home.

A crowd of 100 to 150 people gathered in front of the Sweet house for much of the night of September 8, but except for one barrage of rocks thrown against the house, no violence occurred. The next evening Gladys Sweet worked in the kitchen preparing a meal, while Ossian and his acquaintances played cards. At one point, they looked out the windows to see a swelling crowd filling the area surrounding their home - nearly 1000 people. According to the Sweets, stones began flying. The eleven people, shut up in the house on Garland Ave. were very nervous and afraid. Threats of violence and racial epithets were audible. Ossian Sweet said later, "the whole situation filled me with an appalling fear - a fear that no one could comprehend but a Negro, and that Negro, one who knew the history behind his people."

After rocks smashed through an upstairs window, shots were fired from the Sweet home. One of the bullets struck thirty-three-year-old Leon Breiner in the back as he stood nearby. Another man lay with a bullet wound to the leg. Six policeman, (who had been present at the time of the shooting, but did nothing to restrain the mob), entered the Sweet home and arrested the eleven occupants, including Gladys Sweet. At police headquarters, the Sweets and their friends were told, for the first time, that a man had been killed and another wounded. An assistant prosecutor informed them that he planned to recommend first degree murder warrants against all eleven, and then promptly jailed them.

From her jail cell, Gladys proclaimed, "Though I suffer and am torn loose from my fourteen-month-old baby, I feel it is my duty to the womanhood of my race. If I am freed I shall return and live at my home on Garland Avenue."

Author Boyle describes, brilliantly, how the end of WWI launched the Great Migration of Negroes from the rural South to the urban North. "There were 5700 blacks living in Detroit in 1910, 91,000 in New York City. Fifteen years later, Detroit had 81,000 black citizens, NYC almost 300,000." By 1925, Americans were deeply divided by hatred for those who were "different;" those who were not white and Protestant.

This popular history, which explores the politics of racism and the bitter battles within the nascent Civil Rights movement, compels the reader to keep turning the pages. The writing is fluid, intelligent and lyrical at times. Arc Of Justice's conclusion will, shock and surprise. There are 8 pages of color photographs included. This is one book I will keep and recommend highly to others.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 63 reviews


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About the Author:

Kevin BoyleKevin Boyle received his B.A. from the University of Detroit in 1982 and his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1990. He teaches twentieth century American history, with an emphasis on class, race, and politics at Ohio State University. A former associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, he is also the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies.

Arc of Justice won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2004 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

He lives in Bexley, Ohio.

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