Arc of Justice

Arc of Justice

by

Kevin Boyle

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Progress and Social Change Theme Analysis

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.
Progress and Social Change Theme Icon

Arc of Justice traces the personal and family history of Black doctor Ossian Sweet and the aftermath of his decision to buy a house in a majority-white Detroit neighborhood against the broader context of early 20th century America. Several decades of social, political, and economic upheaval created great opportunities for Black men like Ossian and people from other minority groups. Men like Ossian, the grandson of enslaved people and sharecroppers, could amass fortunes. Members of recently disenfranchised minorities, like the Irish Catholic Frank Murphy or the Polish American John Smith, could challenge a political elite primarily made up of native-born white Protestants. But, the book claims, nothing guarantees progress or makes it easy or straightforward. For example, following the Civil War, the United States government instituted a series of programs, gathered under the umbrella of Reconstruction, designed to extend education to formerly enslaved people and their children, increase their political participation, and provide them equal footing in the labor market. Yet, within a few generations, the descendants of white slaveowners and planters had reasserted their political power in the South, begun a series of segregationist policies and laws called Jim Crow, and established the Ku Klux Klan to terrorize Black citizens. Similarly, while northern cities like Detroit initially promised less discrimination and better jobs for Black Southerners who were willing to make the “Great Migration,” sudden influxes of new residents spurred increasing racism and segregation even in formerly abolitionist strongholds. And despite the outcome of the Sweet case, in which a jury agreed that Black people had the right to buy homes where they pleased and to defend them by whatever means necessary, the NAACP and other proponents of housing equality were unable to turn the tide of public and legal opinion against the social and economic practices of redlining. Thus, while the defense in the Sweet cases asserted the central humanity and dignity of the defendants, regardless of their skin color or race, the book nevertheless shows how the titular “arc of justice” is slow to create meaningful change in practice.

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Progress and Social Change ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Arc of Justice related to the theme of Progress and Social Change.
Prologue Quotes

In the early 1920s, sophisticates scrambled to grab a share of the black life that southern migration was bringing into the cities. White producers mounted all-black musicals. White couples fumbled with the Charleston. And white patrons poured into Chicago’s South Side jazz joints and Harlem’s nightclubs. If they were lucky, they squeezed into the Vendome, where Louis Armstrong held the floor, or Edmund’s Cellar, where Ethel Waters sang the blues. The frenzy was shot through with condescension. White slummers thought black life exciting because it was “primitive” and vital. Visiting the ghetto’s haunts became the era’s way to snub mainstream society, to be in the avant-garde.

Related Characters: Ossian Sweet
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 1 Quotes

No matter how many advantages families along Garland Avenue enjoyed, though, it was always a struggle to hold on. Housing prices had spiraled upward so fearfully the only way a lot of folks could buy a flat or a house was to take on a crippling burden of debt. The massive weight of double mortgages or usurious land contracts threatened to crack family budgets. Men feared the unexpected assault on incomes that at their best barely covered monthly payments […] And now they faced this terrible turn of events: Negroes were moving onto the street, breaking into white man’s territory. News of their arrival meant so many things. A man felt his pride knotted and twisted. Parents feared for the safety of their daughters […] And everyone knew that when the color line was breached, housing values would collapse, spinning downward until Garland Avenue was swallowed into the ghetto and everything was lost.

Related Characters: Ossian Sweet, Gladys Sweet
Related Symbols: Houses
Page Number: 16-17
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

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:
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:
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:
Chapter 9 Quotes

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

“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: