As soon as James Weldon Johnson, the executive secretary of the NAACP, sees the Sweets’ story in the newspapers, he grasps its potential. Even in the North, segregation and racial violence—especially in terms of restrictive housing policies—are increasing.
As leader of the NAACP, James Weldon Johnson understands the danger of a moment where Southern-style segregation seems poised to take over the whole country. Until all Black Americans have the same civil rights in practice as white citizens, they live in danger of violence and injustice.
Johnson is a remarkable man. Poised, elegant, and politic, his pride and carriage developed out of a sheltered and privileged childhood in a prosperous Black middle-class family. From this foundation, he went on to establish the nation’s first Black daily newspaper, become the first Black lawyer admitted to the Florida bar, founded Florida’s first Black high school, and wrote popular musicals, songs, poetry, and an autobiography. President Theodore Roosevelt granted him a consular appointment, sending Johnson as an American representative to Venezuela and Nicaragua. Now, as the NAACP’s first Black executive secretary, he interfaces between the primarily white board of directors and prominent Black members like W. E. B. Du Bois.
Johnson exemplifies both talented tenth ideal and the American Dream. His working-class parents provided him a solid foundation, but he achieved prominence through his own efforts at forging successful legal and artistic careers. But despite the recognition of men like the NAACP’s board of directors and former President Theodore Roosevelt, he still faces discrimination and prejudice from less open-minded white people. Thus, his political career ends when Roosevelt’s time in the White House does.
The Sweets’ case exemplifies increasing housing segregation, especially in the North. Even Johnson’s beloved Harlem neighborhood owes its existence to housing discrimination. The NAACP has been mounting legal challenges to segregated housing for several years, including a successful Supreme Court challenge of exclusionary laws in Louisville, Kentucky. At the time of the Garland Avenue shooting, the NAACP has another challenge—based in Washington, D.C.—winding its way to the Supreme Court. These legal actions are expensive, and Johnson needs to raise funds. A case like the Sweets’ could galvanize national donations, and it could convince white people from less-desirable ethnic minorities—who face similar discrimination—to join the fight.
The nationwide housing segregation crisis highlights the competing interests of the national players in the Sweets’ case. Of course, the NAACP and Johnson, both dedicated to fighting housing discrimination, want to support the Sweets’ right to own property and defend it. But it’s also convenient that the Sweets are accomplished and photogenic—they’ll look good in the papers, no matter how the case is decided. And while the NAACP wants to help them win their case, its need to use them as an example for fundraising means that its focus and priorities might not always align with the local lawyers’.
But Johnson’s fundraising efforts face an uphill battle: the white press largely ignores the NAACP, and Black communities aren’t paying much more attention. But Johnson pays attention, especially to Detroit, where Alexander Turner, Vollington Bristol, and the Fletcher family have recently faced violent expulsion from their homes. Johnson plans to visit Detroit later in the fall. Meanwhile, the Sweets’ case comes to his attention and he dispatches his protégé, Walter White, to the Motor City.
The color line impedes the NAACP’s fundraising efforts. White Americans—even those in minority groups that are themselves vulnerable to housing segregation—don’t know about the issue because the white press doesn’t cover it. But Johnson sees the potential to awaken white people’s sympathy towards Black families thrown from their homes in Detroit.
When Walter White isn’t occupied with his work as Johnson’s second-in-command at the NAACP, he rubs elbows with American literary elites. Although he is mixed race and therefore considered “a Negro” by the racial standards of the day, the light-skinned, blue-eyed Walter White easily passes for Caucasian—when he wants to. In principle, White embraces his mixed heritage and despises racialized hatred, but in practice he prefers the company of white people and admits, in private, to distrusting “pure Negro[s].” Still, his passion—and his ability to “pass” while investigating lynchings and other crimes on behalf of the NAACP—make him an indispensable member of the organization and positions him to help usher in the literary movement later known as the Harlem Renaissance. His own debut novel, The Fire in the Flint, published in 1923, becomes an instant success.
The question of Walter White’s race shows how “race” is a culturally constructed idea. Most people interpret his light skin and blue eyes as “white,” but his mixed-race grandmother was born into slavery as the daughter of an enslaved woman and a white man. According to “one drop” classification systems that were common in the early 20th century, having both Black and white ancestors among his grandparents qualified White as “Black.” And, despite his self-identification as a Black man, his preference for light-skinned people shows how deeply rooted prejudice is in segregated American society.
The dynamic White arrives in Detroit about a week after the shootings, determined to shape up the case as quickly as possible so he can get back to New York for a weekend of parties. But conflict quickly arises. To avoid further inflaming the racial divisions in the city, the NAACP executive board wants a white defense lawyer. But the current attorneys balk at the idea. They fear that such a move will alienate the city’s Black population and cut off its financial support for the Sweets’ cause. White counters that the case has national ramifications and that a white lawyer could sway the opinions of white Detroiters who currently believe the Sweets guilty. White writes a letter to Johnson criticizing the trio of lawyers. He writes particularly harshly about Cecil Rowlette, who happens to be dark-skinned and the son of a formerly enslaved person.
Progress towards civil rights in America is complicated and messy. White’s initial visit to Detroit also highlights the mismatched priorities between the Sweets’ local and national supporters. The local lawyers want the case settled as quietly and quickly as possible, while the NAACP banks on national publicity to further its broader fight against housing discrimination. And White’s personal prejudice against darker-skinned Black men adds personal vitriol to these institutional differences. White’s reaction points towards the deep ways in which prejudice infiltrates a society—despite his own racial heritage and his work at the NAACP, he still demonstrates bias towards lighter-skinned people.
White attends the preliminary hearing, where Assistant Prosecutor Lester Moll sidesteps the issue of forethought (for which he has no evidence) and instead focuses on the technicalities of crowd size and antagonism. Carefully selected witnesses describe a small, non-threatening crowd. Moll seems to intend to prove the shootings disproportionate to the situation and convict the Sweets and their compatriots of conspiracy by implication. The defense attorneys, especially Rowlette, do their best to poke holes in the witnesses’ testimony. But, despite this and Moll’s failure to explicitly tie any of the suspects to Leon Breiner’s murder, the judge finds the evidence sufficient to proceed to trial.
The seriousness of the charge against the defenders—premeditated murder—shows the degree to which Detroit political figures like prosecutor Robert Toms feel they must support and enforce the color line due to the current political situation in the city. The prosecution’s lack of evidence to support that charge shows how unjustly the system functions, since Black citizens like the Sweets and their friends don’t have equal civil rights in practice as well as in legal theory. And it shows how willing some leaders are—even the more progressive ones, like Toms—to pander to nativist and segregationist interests.
White uses this blow to revisit the idea of adding a white defense lawyer, but Rowlette’s terms—that he and his co-counsels remain involved and that no other than Thomas Chawke, Detroit’s most famous defense lawyer be allowed to join them—infuriate White. Chawke, known for defending mobsters, will give the case (which needs to be “a drama of injustice fairly fought”) the wrong appearance for the national stage.
The argument over adding a white lawyer to the team—and which one to add—highlights the differences between the local legal team’s focus and that of the NAACP. The local lawyers focus on the legal peril of the 11 defendants, while the NAACP’s prioritizes generating publicity to draw attention to the general issue of housing segregation.
While Walter White fumes over Rowlette’s impertinence, James Johnson starts fundraising. News of the Sweets’ arrest spreads through the national Black press, carefully spun by the NAACP and connected to their ongoing Supreme Court challenge. Stories emphasize Ossian’s injured pride and the suffering of the young couple, unjustly separated from their daughter and thrown in jail. And they raise the specter of Jim Crow segregation encroaching on Northern Black communities. But donations fail to meet expectations. More distressingly, the organization not only fails to gain traction with white audiences, but signs appear that liberal white people increasingly favor segregation. Johnson knows that white people must feel the sting of the case personally before it can cut through the color line.
The difficulties the NAACP faces in getting the Sweets’ story national attention in the white press shows how solidified the color line has become—even in the North—by the early decades of the 20th century. In the Black press, however, they work to emphasize the elements of Ossian’s story that connect to the American Dream—his professional success and desire to buy a nice home for his growing family—and his right to defend himself. In their telling, he took a stand not only for himself but for the dignity and humanity of any Black person denied housing by racist real estate policies.
In the week following White’s visit to Detroit, Julian Perry tells the local NAACP branch that he wants to resign to make way for a white lawyer. But news of White’s pressure campaign on the defense team provokes a backlash from the Black Bottom community, which begins raising a separate defense fund “uncontrolled by outside politics.” Newly empowered, Cecil Rowlette remains in control of the case through the arraignment hearing.
The tug-of-war between the national NAACP organization and the community of Black Detroiters reminds readers that, although the Sweet case becomes a local referendum on segregationist attitudes and nativist politics in Detroit, there are real people at the center of the drama. Without equal civil rights, the Sweets and their friends represent bigger issues in a segregated America, and their local friends and supporters refuse to let the NAACP lose sight of their individuality.
While the suspects await the arraignment hearing, they receive visitors, including Henry Sweet, Sr., who travels all the way from Florida to visit his three sons. When Otis apologizes for embarrassing the family, Henry says he has nothing to be embarrassed about because “[o]nly rabbits run.” Perhaps heartened by these words of approval, Otis joins Charles Washington, Leonard Morse, and William Davis in appealing to the NAACP to assume control of a case that has ramifications for the “inalienable rights under the Constitution” of all Black citizens. White tasks Perry with visiting the white lawyers on the NAACP’s list, but each one declines to join the defense. The political situation—everyone expects the Klan’s candidate to do well in the upcoming mayoral election—makes the proposition too risky. Only Chawke expresses willingness—for an unbearably high fee.
Henry Sr.’s conversation with his son reinforces the idea that what Ossian, his brothers, and his friends stood to defend on Garland Avenue was more than just a house. It was the dignity and humanity of themselves and other Black people. Rather than being ashamed of his sons’ incarceration, Henry feels pride in their courage standing up against an unjust system. This inspires Otis to look at his situation through the lens of the ongoing fight for civil rights, so he joins with Morse and Davis in agitating for the NAACP to take over the defense team. However, most local white lawyers prioritize their careers over furthering civil rights, likely fearing that if the Klan’s candidate wins the mayoral election, they’ll be out of a job if they join the case.
Thus, Rowlette remains in control of the case on the day of the arraignment hearing. Witness testimony at the preliminary hearing had foreclosed his opportunity to present a self-defense argument, which he used successfully with the Fleta Mathies case. Instead, he attacks the Prosecution’s flimsy case: their murder charges make no sense without an identifiable murder or compelling evidence of conspiracy. Justice demands that the Sweets and their friends be released. Although Frank Murphy carefully considers Rowlette’s motion to dismiss, his instinct for political preservation overrides blind justice. The trial of The People v. Sweet will proceed. The next day, Klan candidates sweep the city primary, even in the city’s eastern, working class, and ethnic minority wards.
The prosecution has a flimsy case that relies more on nativist fear and resentment than facts, and everyone seems to know it. But despite this evident injustice, the political situation in Detroit leaves Murphy vulnerable to the wrath of white, native-born voters who want to keep the color line intact. And this certainly seems like a winning political strategy when wards where he himself enjoyed wide support as a progressive candidate just a few years earlier swing for the Klan candidate in the primary, demonstrating how strongly people feel about defending the color line and housing segregation in Detroit.
At NAACP headquarters, a letter arrives from the chief counsel of the Chicago Defender. Because the case interests him, he offers any help he can—including the knowledge of great lawyers like Mr. Clarence Darrow. Twelve days before the trial begins, someone in the NAACP realizes the potential of this offer. Clarence Darrow is the most famous and brilliant defense lawyer in the country, and his involvement has the chance to change the trajectory of the Sweets’ story.
The note of assistance comes from the Chicago Defender, a Black-owned newspaper, offering another reminder of how difficult it is to carry the Sweets’ story across the color line. But, in a stroke of unbelievably good luck, the connection to Clarence Darrow offers the NAACP just what it needs: the high-profile white lawyer who can capture the country’s attention and perhaps ensure that justice prevails.