Arc of Justice

Arc of Justice

by

Kevin Boyle

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Themes and Colors
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
Justice and Civil Rights Theme Icon
Self-Defense, Race, and Ownership Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
Progress and Social Change Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Arc of Justice, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Justice and Civil Rights Theme Icon

Arc of Justice traces the story of Black doctor Ossian Sweet, whose move into an all-white Detroit neighborhood with his family precipitates the death of a white man when a mob attacks the house. When Ossian, his brother Henry, and eight other men are charged with first-degree murder, the NAACP seizes on the case as an opportunity to bring national attention to the issue of increasing, legally sanctioned but dreadfully unjust housing segregation. The courtroom drama in Arc of Justice shows justice to be a living, dynamic thing, for whether or not a law is just in practice depends on how (or if) people interpret and enforce it. Further, the book claims that justice cannot exist without equal rights in law and practice.

For instance, at one point the Detroit Mayor acknowledges the Sweets’ legal rights (they can legally purchase their house) while at the same time, he suggests they should submit themselves to injustice (he suggests they’re responsible for inciting the crowd’s violence by purchasing the house). Other instances of individual and systemic racism illustrate the essential injustice of a system without comprehensive civil rights. In Detroit, mobs run Alexander Turner, John Fletcher, and Fleta Mathies out of homes in all-white neighborhoods, even when the police claim to provide protection. Moreover, the Detroit Police count Klan members among their ranks, and they stand accused of massive, racialized abuses of power—including murder in cold blood. These circumstances all suggest that justice is functionally impossible to achieve in a biased system.

In this context, Clarence Darrow, Walter White, James Weldon Johnson, and Judge Frank Murphy must continually strive to ensure that the co-defendants in Sweet receive a fair trial. But full justice—and the civil rights it depends upon—lie beyond the history presented in this book. For example, Arc of Justice shows how the blatant violence and overt segregation of the South turns into the more insidious practices of redlining in the North, where restrictive covenants fail to rise to the legal threshold of segregation yet still unjustly carve the city into zones for white and non-white residents. And the jury of the Sweets’ “peers” contains only white men. Still, the defense earns a verdict of not guilty in the end, suggesting that the potential for justice is still there—though it requires hard work to bring it about and keep it alive.

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Justice and Civil Rights ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Justice and Civil Rights appears in each chapter of Arc of Justice. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Justice and Civil Rights Quotes in Arc of Justice

Below you will find the important quotes in Arc of Justice related to the theme of Justice and Civil Rights.
Chapter 2 Quotes

The threat of violence was constant. Across the cotton belt, planters organized terrorist cells: the Regulators, the Whitecappers, the Ku Klux Klan. Operating under the protection of darkness, the Klan and their fellows targeted anyone who dared to challenge white domination. They forced teachers in colored schools to abandon their posts. They threatened, assaulted, and burned out those few freedmen who managed to acquire land of their own. Mostly, they waged war against the Republican state governments that set Reconstruction’s rules. Vigilantes assassinated dozens of Republicans in the late 1860s and early 1870s, as many as seventy in the heavily black county just east of Leon, where the Klan ran rampant.

Page Number: 52-53
Explanation and Analysis:

So the revolution had come. Eight years earlier, the DeVaughn brothers had been pieces of property. Now they were men who demanded respect: missionaries of the Word, spreading the gospel to their fellow freedmen; aspiring farmers, working to earn a share of the American dream. They were still poor, still landless, still struggling to be equal to whites in fact as well as in name. But they had come so very far, there was every reason to be hopeful […] What must have run through Gilla’s mind as she cradled her granddaughter in her leathery arms? This child wouldn’t be like her babies, who had been born into a world now dead and gone. This child would have a future all her own.

Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

He’d recount it with frightening specificity: the smell of kerosene, Rochelle’s screams as he was engulfed in flames, the crowd’s picking off pieces of charred flesh to take home as souvenirs. Maybe, just maybe, he did see it all. The bridge was a short walk from his home. He could have been outside—coming back from his father’s fields—when the mob drove Rochelle through East Bartow. But he was only five years old in the summer of 1901. And it seems unlikely that Dora would have let him outside anytime that day. More likely, the horrific events imprinted themselves so deeply on Ossian’s mind that he convinced himself that he had been there. Either way, the effect was the same. The image of the conflagration—the heart-pounding fear of it—had been seared into his memory.

Related Characters: Ossian Sweet, Fred Rochelle, Dora DeVaughn
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

Neighborhoods and businesses weren’t the only places where Negroes were increasingly unwelcome: at Scarborough’s beloved Oberlin, there was talk of black and white students taking their Bible studies in separate classes. None of this segregation had the sanction of law—state civil rights statutes remained on the books—and it wasn’t consistently applied: it was a patchwork of practices differing from place to place and even street to street. But for colored people, the trend was frighteningly familiar.

Page Number: 78-9
Explanation and Analysis:

Violence finally ended on the fourth day […President] Wilson ordered two thousand federal troops into the capital to secure the streets. And a furious rainstorm drove both whites and blacks indoors. Negro spokesmen insisted, however, that neither federal action nor a fortuitous turn in the weather had quelled the attack. James Weldon Johnson […] arrived in the city just as the soldiers were taking up positions. “The Negroes themselves saved Washington by their determination not to run, but to fight,” he concluded after two days of consultation and investigation, “fight in defense of their lives and their homes. If the white mob had gone on unchecked—and it was only the determined effort of black men that checked it—Washington should have been another and worse East St. Louis.”

Related Characters: James Weldon Johnson (speaker), Ossian Sweet
Related Symbols: Houses
Page Number: 96-97
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

But it was nothing more than a façade, as inside the police headquarters, corruption was rampant, and every Negro in the city knew that justice received here would be tempered at best, lethal at worst. Colored people raised in Alabama, Mississippi, or Florida hardly expected justice to be blind, but still they despised the blinding prejudice that seemed to consume Detroit’s cops. Colored men were two and a half times more likely to be arrested than whites, colored women almost seven times as likely as their Caucasian counterparts. Once they were in custody, Negroes routinely were held for days without being formally charged and often were denied access to lawyers—sometimes suspects were moved from precinct to precinct so they couldn’t be found, then were threatened and even beaten until they confessed.

Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:

All summer long, the Invisible Empire had been trying to “induce Negroes to go into districts populated entirely by persons who would … resent such an invasion,” hoping that […] Detroit would be consumed by racial violence so severe the city government would topple […] Of course, Negroes had a legal right to live wherever they wished. But, insisted Smith, “it does not always do for any man to demand to its fullest the right which the law gives him. Sometimes by doing so he works irremediable harm to himself and his fellows.” In fact, segregation was a social good, and those who dared to challenge it an enemy to their people and their city […] “I shall go further. I believe that any colored person who endangers life and property, simply to gratify his personal pride, is an enemy of his race as well as an incitant of riot and murder.”

Related Characters: John Smith (speaker)
Related Symbols: Houses
Page Number: 195-196
Explanation and Analysis:

The Klan was in the ascendancy; the Negroes’ white allies on the bench had deserted them; the mayor they had helped to elect had endorsed injustice and declared the pursuit of civil rights a threat to peace and liberal democracy. No longer was this simply a question of whether the Sweets were justified in firing into the mob on Garland Avenue. Now the Talented Tenth was locked in combat against segregation itself, battling to preserve some shred of the promise that brought almost a million people out of the South in the previous ten years, to show that the North was different, to prove that there were places in America where Jim Crow would not be allowed to rule. This had become a fight over fundamentals.

Related Characters: Ossian Sweet, Gladys Sweet, John Smith
Page Number: 196
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

With its fight against restrictive covenants, though, the NAACP believed it had a way to show its erstwhile allies that in the era of the KKK they were not assured of being on the safe side of the color line. Already the NAACP had reports of builders barring Jews from new housing developments. And there was every reason to believe that Anglo-Saxons would soon extend such prohibitions to Catholics and immigrants as well. Every opportunity they had, association officials hammered the message home. Agreements that denied blacks access to the homes of their choice were “the entering wedge of the Ku Klux Klan program of elimination.”

Related Symbols: Houses
Page Number: 204-205
Explanation and Analysis:

Ossian was quoted as saying in late September, “I am willing to stay indefinitely in the cell and be punished. I feel sure by the demonstration made by my people that they have confidence in me as a law-abiding citizen. I denounce the theory of Ku Kluxism and uphold the theory of manhood with a wife and tiny baby to protect.” Tough as nails on the night of the shooting, Gladys became in White’s hands a black Madonna, her arms aching for the child she could not hold. “Though I suffer and am torn loose from my fourteen-month-old baby,” she said, “I feel it is my duty to the womanhood of the race. If I am freed I shall return and live at my home on Garland Avenue.”

Related Characters: Ossian Sweet (speaker), Gladys Sweet (speaker), Iva Sweet, Walter White, Leon Breiner
Page Number: 220
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

Once he embraced the avant-garde, he lost all faith in the legal system—“society is organized injustice,” he insisted—and grew bored with the intricacies of legal procedure. But he continued to practice law because in the glare of a high-profile case he found the perfect opportunity to attack the status quo and proclaim the modernist creed. “This meant more than the quibbling with lawyers and juries, to get or keep money for a client so that I could take part of what I won or saved for him,” he said in his old age. “I was dealing with life, with its hopes and fears, its aspirations and despairs. With me it was going to the foundation of motive and conduct and adjustments for human beings, instead of blindly talking of hatred and vengeance, and that subtle, indefinable quality that men call ‘justice’ and of which nothing is really known.”

Related Characters: Clarence Darrow (speaker)
Page Number: 234
Explanation and Analysis:

“Above all I want them to know that they are in a court where the true ideal of justice is constantly sought. A white judge, white lawyers, and twelve white jurymen are sitting in judgment of eleven who are colored black. This alone is enough to make us fervent in our effort to do justice. I want the defendants to know that true justice does not recognize color.”

Related Characters: Frank Murphy, John Smith
Page Number: 249
Explanation and Analysis:

Not once in the many appearances that the newspapers reported did Smith defend the right of colored families to live wherever they pleased, as he had done during the July disturbances; not once did he criticize banks, insurance companies, builders, and real estate agents for hemming Negroes into Black Bottom, nor did he condemn mobs for assaulting those few who managed to break through its boundaries; not once did he talk about the Sweets, although the story was white-hot as the mayoral campaign was coming to a climax. It was a political silence, given white Detroit’s hostility to Negroes crossing the neighborhood color line, a simple act of omission—and an unrepentant sin of commission in the ongoing construction of a segregated city.

Related Characters: Frank Murphy, John Smith
Page Number: 253
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

When the proceedings resumed at half past nine on Thursday, November 5, the courtroom had been transformed into a tableau of American justice. On a simple bench along one wall sat the eleven defendants, Ossian and Gladys side by side on the far end, exchanging occasional whispers but otherwise watching events with grim-faced concentration. Against the opposite wall sat twelve of their peers—in name if not in fact—arranged in two neat rows of chairs set behind a low railing. Between the two groups in the well of the courtroom stood the representative of the people, the accuser facing the accused as the finest of Anglo-Saxon traditions required, a handsome young white man come to say why eleven Negroes should spend the rest of their lives in prison paying for their crimes.

Page Number: 267
Explanation and Analysis:

But his message was soothingly soft. He wouldn’t demand that the walls of segregation be brought down, that whites welcome blacks into their neighborhoods, or that they acknowledge Negroes as the brothers they were. Like Johnny Smith before him, he asked for nothing more than tolerance. “I ask you gentlemen in behalf of my clients,” he boomed, “I ask you more than anything else, I ask you in behalf of justice, often maligned and down-trodden, hard to protect and hard to maintain, I ask you in behalf of yourselves, in behalf of our race, to see that no harm comes to them. I ask you gentlemen in the name of the future, the future which will one day solve these sore problems, and the future which is theirs as well as ours, I ask you in the name of the future to do justice in this case.”

Related Characters: Clarence Darrow (speaker), John Smith
Page Number: 295
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

“Why deny that the greatest asset that the State has in this case is prejudice and the greatest handicap that we have on this side of the table is prejudice […] I thought this case was fraught with nothing but disastrous things, and apart from the testimony, when I viewed here the sinister figure of prejudice, sitting before you twelve men in a dispensary of justice, but as I sat here this morning, and I saw an attempt made to arouse that prejudice, in order to becloud the issue here, so that you twelve men would not decide this case upon the testimony…I was amazed to think that a public prosecutor should go to the burial place of Leon Breiner and drag his helpless body before you in order that you might send Henry Sweet to jail because Leon Breiner is dead and Henry Sweet is black instead of white.”

Related Characters: Thomas Chawke (speaker), Henry Sweet, Arthur Garfield Hays, Leon Breiner
Related Symbols: Houses
Page Number: 329
Explanation and Analysis:

“Prejudices have burned men at the stake,” Darrow told the jurors, “broken them on the rack, torn every joint apart, destroyed people by the million. Men have done this on account of some terrible prejudice which even now is reaching out to undermine this republic of ours and to destroy the freedom that has been the most cherished part of our institutions. These witnesses honestly believe that it is their duty to keep colored people out. They honestly believe that blacks are an inferior race and yet if they look at themselves, I don’t know how they can […] They are possessed with that idea and that fanaticism, and when people are possessed with that they are terribly cruel. […] Others will do the same thing as long as this weary world shall last […]but, gentlemen, they ought not to ask you to do it for them.”

Related Characters: Clarence Darrow (speaker)
Page Number: 333
Explanation and Analysis: