One month after the second Sweet trial ends, the NAACP holds its annual convention in Chicago’s South Side. James Weldon Johnson celebrates the promise of the now fully funded Legal Defense Fund; W. E. B. Du Bois lectures about the Harlem Renaissance’s upward trajectory; Walter White networks and promotes his newly-published second novel. When Clarence Darrow takes the stage, however, he outclasses them all; 2,000 people must be turned away from the Auditorium Theatre, which is filled to capacity. Although Darrow still sees prejudice, he now confidently predicts that its decline has begun. And although racial and ethnic hatred persist well into the 21st century, the legal and social changes in American society in the 1930s, 40s, 50s do show progress. Klan power evaporates and Jim Crow segregation drains away in the North, where white people convince themselves again that they are a tolerant, forward-thinking group, unlike their Southern peers.
After the trial, the work of advocating for civil rights and pushing American society toward a more just and equitable future continues. Darrow’s confident projections that the beginning of the end of white supremacy has arrived may be a little too hopeful. But it is nevertheless true that the Sweet case represents an important step. As violent extremist groups like the Klan lose social and legal approval, Black citizens can increasingly integrate into society. Unfortunately, in the North, this also allows people to start telling themselves that racism and segregation belong to other people and other places without addressing their own culpability in allowing and perpetuating segregation.
Clarence Darrow spends the rest of his life advocating for civil rights. He joins the NAACP’s executive board in 1926 and becomes one of its most dedicated champions. He donates a portion of his lecture fees to the organization as well as regularly consulting with Johnson and White and contributing his writing to the NAACP’s Crisis magazine. He even joins the defense in a 1932 trial for nine Black teenagers accused of raping two white girls in Alabama. He passes away in the spring of 1938 at the age of 80.
Although Darrow showed little interest in civil rights before (or even, really, during) the Sweet trials, his time on the defense pushes him into advocacy. In part this can be interpreted as a natural extension of his modernist values, since it allows him to attack the unthinking perpetuation of the status quo. But he also appears to have been truly dedicated to the work because he believes in it.
In contrast, others associated with the political and legal events of 1925 and 1926 fail to advance civil rights. Thomas Chawke returns to a lucrative career defending mob bosses. John Smith’s promising political career crumbles in the face of the Detroit business and social elite’s coordinated campaigns against him. Without the foil of the Klan to rally progressive groups behind him, Smith fails to achieve a workable coalition again.
Not everyone involved in the trial goes on to become a civil rights champion. But the book suggests that this is to be expected, since progress towards equality and justice is a long, complicated, and difficult process.
However, to a remarkable degree, others involved in the Sweet case do move America “away from the brutal intolerance of the 1920s.” Arthur Garfield Hays spends a legal career defending the rights of men and women from marginalized groups. Reinhold Niebuhr studies Detroit’s racial problems deeply on the mayor’s blue-ribbon commission. And while this group’s work fails to suggest meaningful changes, it also moves Niebuhr to develop a “radical” form of “politically involved” theology that inspires a generation of clergy, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Josephine Gomon transforms Detroit’s struggling welfare system into a “model of well-managed generosity,” and Robert Toms’ career becomes so deeply involved in pursuing equal rights that he’s called on prosecute Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials.
Mayor Smith’s blue-ribbon commission provides a glaring example of the institutional stumbling blocks that hinder progress. While the commission gathers plenty of evidence about the problems of prejudice and segregation, it fails to offer meaningful ideas for change, in much the same way that the Sweet trial dramatized the stakes of housing segregation without addressing the core issues of prejudicial thinking and legal segregationist policies. Still, Detroit’s early 20th-century racial tensions prove to be a fertile breeding ground for the thinkers and philosophies that go on to animate the civil rights movement of the 1960s. And despite his role as a defender of the segregated status quo in the Sweet trial, Robert Toms later creates a legacy of civil rights advocacy.
Although Detroit’s elite defeat John Smith, they fail to topple Frank Murphy, who becomes mayor of Detroit in 1930 with the support of the same coalition of Black and white working people who carried Smith to power earlier. This launches a political career which sees Murphy becoming governor-general of the Philippines, governor of Michigan, attorney-general of the United States, and, finally, a Supreme Court Justice. During his tenure on the court, he defends the rights of marginalized groups of all types and condemns the internment of Japanese citizens during WWII.
Frank Murphy’s dedication to truly fair justice characterizes his entire career and makes him an important figure in the history of the American Civil Rights movement. While his efforts to provide equitable justice show the promise of American ideals, the heroic effort involved in doing so also indicates how biased the system historically has been against marginalized groups.
James Weldon Johnson steps away from NAACP leadership to protect his health in 1929, and Walter White succeeds him. Under White’s direction, the NAACP “doggedly pursue[s]” Johnson’s legal strategy, using Supreme Court challenges to chip away at Jim Crow laws, including a landmark civil rights victory in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, which receives its decision a year before White’s death.
The NAACP’s advocacy in the decades following the Sweet trials shows that progress towards ideals like equality and justice is possible, even though it requires patience, immense effort, and social upheaval to achieve. The Brown v. Board of Education case, decided by the Supreme Court in 1954, declared segregated school systems unconstitutional and delivered the first meaningful blow to the separate-but-equal ideology that had successfully maintained the American color line since the Reconstruction era.
But racism and segregation still flourish, even in the North. The NAACP’s challenge of the restrictive covenants in Washington D.C. fails its Supreme Court challenge shortly after Henry Sweet’s acquittal. Social and economic forces, rather than legal ones, conspire to further solidify the color line in American real estate during the late 1920s and 1930s. As racism comes to be seen as a personal failure rather than a set of social systems conspiring to divide society, northern white progressives decry Southern lynchings while ignoring solidifying segregation in their own cities. Only in 1968, more than 40 years after the violent summer of 1925, does federal legislation begin to prohibit racial discrimination in buying and selling homes. But by then, segregation has become thoroughly entrenched, and today, Detroit is the most segregated city in America.
Progress towards ideals like civil rights and equitable housing access isn’t guaranteed, as the NAACP’s loss of its Supreme Court challenge shows. Complacency on the part of Northern progressives, who convince themselves that racism and prejudice are personal failings rather than systemic issues, further inhibits progress. And solidifying housing segregation shows how powerful social customs can be; laws enshrining equal rights have no power when society conspires to find workarounds that subvert them. Detroit’s modern-day housing segregation shows that, while much progress has been made towards civil rights, integration, and equality in the century since the Sweet trial, there is still much to be done.
For Ossian and Gladys, tragedy ruins the news of Henry’s acquittal and the subsequent dropping of charges against the remaining defendants. Iva and Gladys are diagnosed with tuberculosis, which Gladys likely caught in jail and passed on to her daughter. Despite the family moving temporarily to Arizona in hopes that the hot, dry climate would allow her lungs to heal, Iva dies just before her second birthday. At Detroit’s Roseland Park Cemetery, the white groundskeeper refuses to allow the family through the main gate until Ossian threatens him with a gun. Ossian remains in Detroit, purchasing a drugstore and founding his own Black hospital while Gladys returns to Arizona in an attempt to recuperate. But in 1928, a few months after Ossian finally takes possession of the house on Garland Avenue, she dies at the age of 27.
The sad ending of the Sweets’ story shows the ways in which systematic segregation, prejudice, and legal bias limit the ability of some people to achieve the American Dream. Trying to assert his rights to homeownership, in the end, cost Ossian his entire family.
Ossian’s personal life spirals downwards after Gladys’ death; two subsequent marriages end in divorce, and he remains childless. His attempts to run for the presidency of the NAACP’s Detroit chapter, the Michigan State Senate, and the U.S. Congress all fail despite his fierce pride in his own accomplishments and his faith in “the American way of life.” In contrast, Henry’s star rises, allowing him to become president of the Michigan NAACP conference before he, too, dies prematurely of tuberculosis. In 1950, Ossian sells the house to a Black family recently arrived from the American South. And in the spring of 1960, just as the Civil Rights movement is poised to take off, he takes his own life in a tiny apartment above his drugstore in Black Bottom, the predominantly Black neighborhood he tried so hard to leave behind.
Ultimately, although moving to the North, getting an education, and putting in the hard work of establishing a medical practice gave Ossian Sweet access to the wealth, status, and security he craved, even achieving the American Dream couldn’t protect him from prejudice and racism. In the end, he pays terrible personal and social costs for the dubious honor of representing the interests and needs of Black Americans. The tragedy of his life, capped by his death by suicide, shows how long and crooked the titular “arc of justice” can be.