Arc of Justice

Arc of Justice

by

Kevin Boyle

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Arc of Justice Summary

On the morning of September 8, 1925, Dr. Ossian Sweet and his wife, Gladys, move into their new house on Garland Avenue in a working-class Detroit neighborhood. They are the first Black family to move to the area. Their arrival upsets their white neighbors, who have been taught to fear allegedly dangerous Black men and who are concerned about the value of their homes tumbling thanks to redlining policies, which devalue properties owned by Black families. Segregation and racialized violence are on the rise in Detroit generally, especially in the context of a contentious mayoral campaign that pits working-class hero John Smith against a candidate openly supported by the city’s powerful Ku Klux Klan branch. Throughout the summer, the Klan holds rallies that promote nativist sentiment and encourages the violent removal of Black residents from otherwise all-white neighborhoods, including Fleta Mathies, John Fletcher, Alexander Turner, Vollington Bristol, and their families.

But Ossian refuses to be intimidated by the threats of violence—even though the childhood experience of witnessing the lynching of Fred Rochelle left a lasting impression on him. He has aimed his whole life at achieving wealth and status, at becoming a respected member of the “talented tenth” whom men like W. E. B. Du Bois believe will help Black men and women become fully integrated members of American society. Ossian grew up in poverty in Florida, but his parents, staunch members of the AME Church who believe in its mission of educational, economic, and political advancement for Black people, sent him north for an education. Despite having to work service jobs to pay for his tuition and expenses, Ossian earns a bachelor’s degree in science from Wilberforce and a medical degree from Howard University. Then he establishes a practice in the neighborhood where most of Detroit’s Black residents live, marries Gladys, and spends a year studying in Europe. On his return to Detroit, he is ready to give his family—which now includes daughter Iva—a nice home and a respectable life.

In light of the volatile situation in the city, however, Ossian asks for police protection during the move. Inspectors Norton Schuknecht and Robert McPherson oversee a handful of officers who station themselves on the street in front of the property on the 8th and 9th of September. But he also gathers weapons and ammunition and asks his brothers Henry and Otis, his cousin John Latting, his friend William Davies, his employees Joe Mack and Norris Murray, and his insurance men Hewitt Watson, Charles Washington, and Leonard Morse to help him protect the house from within. When a threatening mob starts throwing rocks at the house on the night of September 9th, one or more of the men shoot out into the street, wounding Eric Houghberg and killing Leon Breiner. Both victims are white.

Wayne County Prosecutor Robert Toms quickly indicts Ossian, Gladys, and the rest of the defenders on charges of premeditated murder. The NAACP takes up the Sweet case in order to bring national attention to the rising issue of housing segregation, adding a white man, famed attorney Clarence Darrow, to a defense team initially made up of local Black lawyers Julian Perry, Cecil Rowlette, and Charles Mahoney. In front of Judge Frank Murphy, Toms tries to prove that the Sweets’ move was a deliberate provocation, that there was no threatening mob, and that the shooting was unprovoked. Darrow and the rest of the defense, on the other hand, establish not only the presence of a threatening mob on Garland Avenue but work to expose the broader threats faced by Black Americans in an era of segregation, racism, and violent terrorism against Black people.

The first trial—in which all 11 defendants are tried together—ends in a hung jury; although all 12 jurors agree on acquitting the majority of the defenders, they split on the question of whether to find Ossian, his brother Henry (who admits at trial to shooting a gun on the night in question), and Leonard Morse (whom another defendant’s testimony places upstairs at the time of the shooting) guilty. The defense moves for separate retrials, and Toms choses to prosecute Henry first. While the defendants wait for the second trial to begin, Ossian and Gladys become the darlings of the NAACP, headlining events around the country as their story helps to raise the money to establish the organization’s legal defense fund.

In the second Sweet trial, Darrow and the defense double down on establishing the pervasive presence of prejudice and systemic racism in American society. Their efforts are rewarded when the jury returns a verdict of not guilty. With the most likely suspect acquitted, Toms drops the charges against the rest of the defendants.

In the aftermath of the trial, Gladys, Iva, and Henry Sweet all die prematurely of tuberculosis. Although Ossian finally moves into the house alone a few years after the trial, he ends up selling it and moving back into the Black Bottom neighborhood in his later years. He takes his own life at the age of 65. Still, the Sweet trials are an important milestone for the fledgling civil rights movement. They show the country that Black Americans face almost as much segregation and violence in the North as they do in the Jim Crow South. They help the NAACP establish its legal defense fund, bring national attention to the issue of housing segregation, and inspire white men like Reinhold Niebuhr to become champions of civil rights. And many of the people involved, including Judge Murphy, Prosecutor Toms, and Darrow, spend the rest of their lives advocating for civil rights.