Arc of Justice

Arc of Justice

by

Kevin Boyle

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Arc of Justice: Chapter 8 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
By telegram, James Weldon Johnson reaches out to gauge Clarence Darrow’s interest in joining the case, only to find out that the famous lawyer is in New York City, visiting his friend, fellow attorney Arthur Garfield Hays. Johnson and his associates secure an appointment with Darrow the same afternoon. The NAACP contingent lays out the details of the case. Darrow, assuming that two of the three representatives are Black, offers sympathies for the difficulties faced by “[their] race.” In fact, neither man is Black, although Walter White, whom Darrow assumes to be white, is. Chuckling over his confusion, Darrow agrees to take the case.
Johnson’s ample social connections and easy access to a man as famous as Clarence Darrow shows him to be the epitome of the talented tenth—a man whose personal excellence has opened the doors of white society to him, at least to a degree. Still, in a segregated and prejudiced society, his achievements don’t guarantee his equal rights, and he finds himself appealing to a famous white lawyer for help. Darrow’s uncomfortable display of inaccurate racial profiling shows how contrived racial segregation is.
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
Justice and Civil Rights Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
Clarence Darrow, at the time of the Detroit case, is the most famous lawyer in the country. He was born and raised in rural Ohio. His tradesman father was a widely read intellectual, religious, and political contrarian with ties to the abolitionist community. Darrow initially followed a conventional lifestyle, studying law at the University of Michigan, marrying, and establishing a practice in his Ohio hometown. But then, at the age of 30, he moved his family to the premier 19th-century “Machine Age” town: Chicago.
Darrow’s personal and professional history predispose him to oppose nativist sentiments, segregation, and the kind of political self-preservation that characterizes most of the local players in the Sweet case, including the white lawyers too afraid to join the defense team. He is a self-made man, rising to national prominence despite his humble upbringing, and much of his rise coincides with the industrialization boom of late 19th-century America.
Themes
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The American Dream Theme Icon
Progress and Social Change Theme Icon
In Chicago, the avant-garde, bohemian modernist movement swept up Darrow. The modernist movement took “bourgeois respectability” as its enemy and flaunted their spurning of social norms in dress, living arrangements, and sexual relationships. Darrow divorced his wife, embarked on a series of romantic affairs, and turned his west side apartment into a “bohemian salon” of artists and writers. For a while, he considered trading his law practice to become a writer, too, but the success of his two published novels never matched the brilliance of his courtroom performances.
Darrow arrives in Chicago at an inflection point in American society. The modernist movement pushed back against Victorian-era morality and social conservatism and foreshadowed or precipitated many of the changes that were well underway during the social and cultural upheaval of the American Roaring 20s. His personal commitment to modernist beliefs also inclines Darrow to take on entrenched political powers, whether they favor capitalists over unions or white nativist populations over Black Americans.
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Darrow’s legal work started to draw widespread attention when he defended the president of the American Railway Union during the 1895 Pullman Strike. Having established his reputation as a defender of the “embattled working class,” Darrow went on to defend workers’ interests in other high-profile cases. But Darrow was driven by a belief that “society is organized injustice,” and the cases he took on presented as much opportunity for self-promotion and attacking bourgeois values as anything else. His courtroom style lent itself to self-promotion and social attack, too. His famous closing arguments jumbled images, emotional appeals, sarcasm, and philosophizing together, allowing him to hold juries spellbound and seemingly bend them to his will.
Darrow represents many different kinds of people. But they are united by their position outside the white, Protestant, native-born, and wealthy classes of society. Darrow thus establishes himself as a champion for the working person, the common person, the immigrant person, and the otherwise oppressed. And, since the NAACP wants publicity to bring attention to the serious issue of housing segregation, his showmanship only adds to his appeal.
Themes
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Quotes
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But Darrow’s reputation as a labor lawyer came to a crashing halt in 1911 when he defended brothers accused of bombing the headquarters of a Los Angeles newspaper. To preserve his clients’ lives, Darrow pled them guilty. The labor movement, stinging with a sense of betrayal, spurned Darrow from then on. But, in the tumult of the 20th century’s early decades, Darrow found plenty of work and opportunities to continue his modernist crusade in the courtroom, defending ethnic minorities and leftists jailed for preaching revolutionary political ideas, fighting Prohibition, and even defending two wealthy Chicago men accused of brutally murdering a young child in cold blood.
Like the defenders and many of the other players in this legal and social drama, Darrow has his own flaws, one of which is his tendency towards self-promotion. And his legal career bears a few scandals that nearly sent him out of practice. Still, in the name of modernism and progress, he finds new types of cases when his star power in labor disputes dissipates. In general, he concerns himself with advancing the cause of modernism, freedom, and equality.
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
Justice and Civil Rights Theme Icon
In 1925, Darrow enacts his most brilliant performance, defending Tennessee schoolteacher John T. Scopes in the so-called “Monkey Trial.” After the state prohibits teaching evolution in schools, Scopes provides the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) with a test case to challenge the law. The ACLU’s star attorney, Arthur Garfield Hays, leads the defense. But after massively famous politician and speechmaker William Jennings Bryan joins the prosecution, Darrow strongarms his way onto the defense team. With the arrival of these two famous men, the trial shifts from a focus on academic freedom to a battle between “the Old Time Religion” and modernity. Darrow even cross-examines Bryan, dismantling his fundamentalist religious ideas and exposing them to national ridicule. Darrow’s reputation isn’t harmed in the least by the fact that the defense loses the trial itself (Scopes is ordered to pay a fine and forced to resign). 
The Scopes Monkey Trial, allegedly about academic freedom, becomes a test case pitting old-fashioned Protestant values against modernist, scientific research. Darrow took a small test case meant to wind its way up to the Supreme Court and turned it into a referendum on old-school religious beliefs. This foreshadows the way he will take the Sweet case and turn it into a referendum on civil rights, prejudice, and segregation in American society. In this way, Darrow shows how small, individual court cases can be leveraged to national attention and used to shift public opinion on important cultural matters.
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Progress and Social Change Theme Icon
Three months after Scopes, the NAACP approaches Darrow with the Sweets’ case. Although his father had exposed the young Darrow to the ideas of abolitionists during his Ohio youth, Darrow had yet to take on segregation or civil rights in his legal career. And the Sweet trial offers the same opportunities as Scopes: the chance to gain the national spotlight and to dismantle  the most sacred of antiquated American creeds, white supremacy.
Initially, it seems like Darrow’s interest in the case arises more from his interest in self-promotion and his desire for public attention. Prior to 1925, civil rights cases hadn’t formed an important part of his legal career or personal interests. The color line and socially condoned segregation allow white men like Darrow to remain ignorant of the glaring racial injustices in American society.
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Justice and Civil Rights Theme Icon
Progress and Social Change Theme Icon
James Weldon Johnson and Walter White don’t worry about Darrow’s spotty legal record—many of his clients have still ended up in prison. True, Darrow’s hunger for celebrity and preference for the fight over victory leads him to the kind of provocations that the Black community—especially in the racial tinderbox of Detroit—can hardly bear. But the NAACP primarily wants publicity due to their fundraising goals.
Hiring Darrow seems really risky for the NAACP. And although the fallout from a failure to achieve an acquittal will fall disproportionately on the Black community in Detroit, they judge the issue of housing segregation and advancing civil rights important enough to risk it.
Themes
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Progress and Social Change Theme Icon
While Johnson tries to wrangle the necessary funding money to hire Darrow and Hays from the NAACP’s executive board, White travels to Detroit, where he smooths over relations with the Black defense team and the larger Black Bottom community. One week before the trial begins, the NAACP announces that Darrow and Hays have joined the defense. Everything is falling into place; the trial will reanimate interest in housing segregation as the NAACP prepares to bring its brief to the Supreme Court in their Washington, D.C. housing discrimination case. The NAACP’s public statement warns Black Americans and ethnic groups about the growing danger of housing segregation, appeals to progressives, and takes a strong stand against the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan. Darrow’s name breaks the color line and the Sweets’ story gains traction across the nation in the white press.
As the trial begins, the future looks promising for the NAACP’s important civil rights work in terms of housing segregation. Darrow’s celebrity breaks through the color line and allows them to make the case that housing policies aimed to segregate one group can easily be weaponized against other groups. Their campaign demonstrates yet again that true justice requires truly equal rights for all in practice as well as in theory. The D.C. and Sweet cases illustrate, then, that the law and public sentiment need to line up in order for marginalized groups to receive justice and equal civil rights.
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
A ray of hope reaches the defendants in jail as Gladys makes bond on October 6 and news of Clarence Darrow’s retention arrives the following week. Then the great lawyer himself arrives at the Wayne County Jail to interview his clients. He reiterates what others have said: men unwilling to defend themselves would not be, in Darrow’s opinion, worth defending in trial. He presses the men to admit to the shooting—in self-defense—rather than try to cling to their thin alibis.
Darrow shows respect for the defenders as human beings standing up for their rights and dignity. Although he wasn’t previously involved in the civil rights movement, his humane treatment of his new clients speaks to his capacity to see them as equals, despite the attempts of nativists and white supremacists to dehumanize and degrade non-white people.
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Darrow’s arrival captures attention in the Black press. Southern newspapers issue unusually bold calls for justice. Papers in Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Washington, D.C. celebrate Ossian as a defender of himself and his house as well as a champion of Black humanity. Some papers directly endorse violent self-defense, especially where the “authorities fail to protect.” Donations flood into the NAACP. Free on bond, Gladys becomes the defenders’ public face. She enjoys the attention. Ossian receives glowing praise from such Black luminaries as W. E. B. Du Bois, who elevates him as an example for the talented tenth while criticizing Alexander Turner’s failure to stand up. Slowly, Ossian’s memory shifts; his fears and doubts fade to the background, and he begins to think of himself as a reluctant hero standing on principle.
As the case garners increasing attention, the press coverage increasingly focuses on the issue of self-defense. At this time, Black Americans were being persecuted and lynched for minor breaches of the color line in  both the North and the South. In contrast, the papers—and the Sweets’ defense team—claim that everyone, including Black citizens, have a right to safety. And Black voices are claiming their dignity and humanity when they declare their right to protect themselves when the police and politicians fail to do so. The growing attention seems to inflate Ossian’s ego, since his newfound celebrity gives him a leading role in the civil rights movement and guarantees his position as a member of the talented tenth.
Themes
Justice and Civil Rights Theme Icon
Self-Defense, Race, and Ownership Theme Icon
The publicity also shifts Detroit’s public sentiment, giving Walter White fresh hope that the defense may win after all. Frank Murphy’s political career depends, in part, on endearing himself to Black supporters by giving the case an unbiased handling. Although he denies Cecil Rowlette’s motion to dismiss charges, his evident sympathy for the Black community and commitment to the ideals of colorblind justice impress White.
National attention to local issues in Detroit also seems to shift the political calculus of the case for progressive political figures like Murphy. He seems to have political aspirations that will require the support of both Black and white Detroit voters, making him hesitant to alienate either group. Still, he positions himself as a champion of true (colorblind) justice.
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Quotes
Outside the courtroom, the Klan’s unexpectedly strong showing during the October primary election puts mayor John Smith back on the offensive. He makes a dynamic return to ethnic and Black neighborhoods, hammering away at Klan intolerance and rebuilding his coalition based on malice towards the Klan and what they represent. Once he stops trying to pander to the Klan, Detroit’s progressive, ethnic, and Black communities rally around Smith.
Without the protection of fully equal civil rights in practice as well as in theory, however, the justice the defendants in the Sweet trial will receive depends on how the political winds shift in Detroit. Mayor Smith plants himself back on the side of the Black and progressive communities—but only after it seems politically safe.
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The Klan’s candidate weakly protests that he isn’t a Klansman and tries to refocus the campaign on the city’s vice and criminality. But his supporters suggest that people who vote for Smith should be tarred and feathered, and they force people to attend their candidates’ rallies at gunpoint. The trial and campaign take on an archetypal feel, pitting the old order’s entrenched intolerance, racism, and fear against the reality of a heterogeneous, modern America. Still, Smith stops short of making a principled stand for civil rights, not just in meetings with the Waterworks and Tireman Associations, but even in less hostile settings.
The inexperience and weakness of the Klan’s candidate helps Mayor Smith’s reelection campaign. So does his unwillingness to take a solid stand against their segregationist beliefs. Still, the Klan’s overt calls for violence alienate potential voters and confirm the case being made by the NAACP and others that segregation and violence can all too easily be turned against many different groups of people.
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Justice and Civil Rights Theme Icon
Progress and Social Change Theme Icon
Quotes
The defense has only two weeks to prepare. Clarence Darrow’s interviews with his clients give him insight into the night’s events; Perry, Rowlette, and Mahoney explain the context of the Mathies, Bristol, Fletcher, and Turner cases. Arthur Garfield Hays and his legal team plan the defense’s legal strategy, which will focus on the issue of whether the threatening mob justified self-defense.
The defense team focuses on the issue of self-defense because it offers the clearest path to an acquittal—the large, stone-throwing mob represented a clear threat to the house on Garland Avenue and its residents.
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Self-Defense, Race, and Ownership Theme Icon
Hays’s team builds their case around an 1860 precedent which holds that belief in a mob’s threat is sufficient for self-defense, even if that belief proves to be inaccurate. And Walter White educates Darrow and Hays on the state of American race relations, giving them reports on the 1919 Washington D.C. and 1921 Tulsa race riots, Southern lynchings, and analyses of restrictive covenants authored by W. E. B. Du Bois and Louis Marshall. For his part, Darrow pays scant attention to the niceties of the legal arguments, confident in his intuitive ability to sway a jury’s emotions towards the cause of justice.
In focusing on self-defense, the lawyers also make a case for the human dignity of the defendants and claim that they have the same rights as white Detroiters to own their own homes and to live in safety. Hays and the local legal team handle the legal niceties while Darrow focuses on the human element, since his specialty is weaving the kinds of legal stories that convince juries to side with his clients. And to do so, he allows Walter White to educate him about the violence and threats that many Black Americans faced in the early 20th century, despite their alleged equality under the law.
Themes
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Self-Defense, Race, and Ownership Theme Icon
On October 30, just as Walter White catches the train from New York to Detroit to attend the trial, the NAACP receives word that a major donor will cover the costs associated with Darrow’s work and will be considering providing seed money for a permanent legal defense fund. The NAACP’s fundraising prospects, lifted by the prominence of the Sweets’ case, look good. And the case’s celebrity causes people to pack the courthouse.
As the case begins, it looks like some good will come of it, on the national scale at least. The funds flowing into the NAACP headquarters will not only cover the costs of the trial but will allow the organization to continue to advocate for civil rights at the local and national levels. The local attention also guarantees a full audience for Darrow’s defense, which will further humanize his clients in the eyes of the general public.
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
Self-Defense, Race, and Ownership Theme Icon
Jury selection—from an unusually large pool meant to ensure scrupulous fairness—takes up much of the first day. When prosecutor Robert Toms and his associate Ted Kennedy finally turn over their 12 candidates for defense examination, Darrow handles it like a master. He easily, almost casually skewers inappropriate jurors, like an elderly man who admits Klan membership under Darrow’s sharp questioning.
The unusual size of the jury pool points both towards Judge Murphy’s personal dedication to creating the conditions for true justice and speaks to the difficulty of doing so in a segregated society where prejudice, especially against Black people, runs rampant.
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
Justice and Civil Rights Theme Icon