Arc of Justice

Arc of Justice

by

Kevin Boyle

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Arc of Justice Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Kevin Boyle's Arc of Justice. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Kevin Boyle

Kevin Boyle was born in Detroit, Michigan in the fall of 1960. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Detroit and went on to earn his doctorate at the University of Michigan. Boyle researches and has written extensively about the history of class, race, and political divisions in the United States of America. In 2004, he won the National Book Award for Arc of Justice, and the book earned him a spot on the shortlist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Boyle teaches history at Northwestern University and lives with his family in Evanston, Illinois.
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Historical Context of Arc of Justice

Arc of Justice covers a period of intensifying violence against Black Americans. The “Red Summer” of 1919 saw white supremacist terrorism and violence break out in 60 cities, towns, and localities throughout the United States, including extended and deadly riots in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Illinois (where at least 38 people were killed), and Omaha, Nebraska. Only two years later, a race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma saw the destruction of a neighborhood famous for the wealth of its Black residents and the massacre of up to 300 people; the Tulsa Race Riot is considered one of the worst single events of racialized violence in the United States. Moreover, in the decade between 1920 and 1929, no fewer than 86 Black Americans were lynched throughout the country. Despite the violence, the years around the Sweet trials also saw the flowering of the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance, two artistic movements that centered the experience and voices of Black Americans. Black musicians developed jazz music out of the blues and ragtime genres in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By the 1920s, Black musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith were gaining national attention for their music. White audiences were exposed to jazz through the practice of “slumming”—visiting Black neighborhoods in large cities for voyeuristic enjoyment and through increasingly wide-spread radio broadcasts. And in Harlem, a group of writers, artists, and poets coalesced around figures like Walter White, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Nella Larsen. These men and women centered the experiences of Black protagonists in ways that transcended the negative stereotypes common in American culture and celebrated, rather than downplayed, their African heritage.

Other Books Related to Arc of Justice

The story of Ossian Sweet’s education and career, which took him from an agrarian childhood in the deep south to a professional career as a doctor in Detroit, happens in the context of the Great Migration. Isabelle Wilkerson provides an in-depth history of this event in American history in her 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Books written by some of the men at the heart of the action in Arc of Justice provide a contemporary contextualization of the experience of Black Americans in the early decades of the 20th century. First among these is W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. This foundational sociology work also presented a call for the full participation of Black people in American culture and politics and introduced Du Bois’s idea of the exceptional, “talented tenth” who would lead the way for Black integration into American life. James Weldon Johnson, executive secretary of the NAACP during the Sweet trials, published a fictional account called The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man in 1912. The light-skinned Black protagonist of this book is so scarred by the terrifying experience of living in post-Reconstruction America that he decides to “pass” as white, allowing the book to explore the individual and social toll of racism in society. In 1924, the year before the shooting at the Sweets’ house and the subsequent trials, Walter White published his critically acclaimed novel, The Fire in the Flint. This book follows a Black doctor and World War I veteran who returns to his hometown in Georgia to open a medical practice and finds himself called to fight against the racial injustices and violence perpetrated by the town’s white residents and the Ku Klux Klan. Two notable works of fiction treat themes like those in the non-fiction Arc of Justice. Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, follows the Younger family’s attempts to grapple with housing discrimination, racism, and assimilation on the south side of Chicago when the family matriarch uses a life insurance payout to put a down payment on a house in an all-white neighborhood. And Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, which is set in Chicago in the 1930s, explores the dire effects of housing segregation and systematic racism on Black Americans.
Key Facts about Arc of Justice
  • Full Title: Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age
  • When Written: Early 2000s
  • Where Written: Columbus, Ohio
  • When Published: 2004
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Historical Nonfiction
  • Setting: Detroit in the 1920s
  • Climax: The jury returns a verdict of not guilty in the second Sweet trial.
  • Antagonist: Racism, redlining, and discriminatory lending practices
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for Arc of Justice

Favorite Son. In 2007, in conjunction with the staging of a play based on the events covered in Arc of Justice, the city of Detroit honored Boyle for his scholarship on the Sweet trials, the history of labor relations in the city, and in recognition of his lifelong personal connection with his hometown.

A Man’s Home is His Museum. In 1958, Ossian Sweet sold the Garland Avenue house to another Black family. In 2018, the city of Detroit received a $500,000 federal civil rights grant to turn the house into museum. The museum memorializes the events of the shooting and the resulting trials, and it also explores the history of segregation in the city.