Arc of Justice

Arc of Justice

by

Kevin Boyle

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Self-Defense, Race, and Ownership 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.
Self-Defense, Race, and Ownership Theme Icon

Arc of Justice centers around the trial of Black doctor Ossian Sweet, his brother Henry, and eight other men who gathered to protect Ossian’s new house from a threatening mob of white neighbors. Thus, the book presents an idea of self-defense that is deeply tied to the idea that owning (and defending) property is one important way to participate in one’s racial group. For example, white Garland Avenue residents worry about safety and depreciating home values thanks to racist housing policies. But perhaps more importantly, the laborers who live on Garland Avenue make just enough money to live in an all-white neighborhood. Living in such a neighborhood confirms their beliefs that they’re superior to Black Americans, even those who—like the Sweets—are wealthier, better educated, and more worldly than they are. It’s this feeling of racial superiority that the book suggests is valuable enough to protect with violence. In this way, the neighbors’ actions mirror the violence and political machinations of the Ku Klux Klan, which were ascendant in Detroit politics in the mid-1920s. Like the Klansmen, they draw a thin line between defending racial purity and self-protection.

Likewise, Ossian defends his humanity and the inherent value of Black people when he takes up arms in his house. The house represents his family’s dignity: his wife Gladys angrily maintains that she can live where she pleases; Henry admits to shooting towards the crowd because he felt threatened. Moreover, because Ossian believes in W. E. B. Du Bois’s idea of the talented tenth—the small proportion of Black men and women who are able and are thus responsible for advocating for integration—he acts as if his actions reflect on other Black men in his community. The things that are worth defending—and which one has a legal right to protect—thus grow over the course of the book, until the jury acquits Henry (and by extension Ossian and the rest of the defendants). However, Arc of Justice also makes it clear that despite Ossian’s courtroom victory, Black homeowners across the country would continue to fight similar battles to own and then defend their homes, even into the present day. Owning a home might be a way to assert one’s dignity and help advance civil rights, but it remains an imperfect, sometimes inaccessible, and even dangerous way to do so.

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Self-Defense, Race, and Ownership ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Arc of Justice related to the theme of Self-Defense, Race, and Ownership.
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

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:

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

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 4 Quotes

But it was mounting discrimination in the real estate market that increasingly sealed Negroes into Black Bottom. Since the early 1910s, white real estate agents and landlords in Chicago and New York had refused to so much as show Negroes homes in white neighborhoods, saying that the presence of colored people depressed property values. In the course of the Great War, these practices spread to Detroit. Not every real estate agent or landlord signed on: if colored folks were willing to pay a premium for a piece of property in a white part of town, some real estate men were happy to oblige them. But to defy the new racial conventions took more courage—or more avarice—than many real estate agents and landlords had. So discriminatory practices passed from office to office, property to property, and racial hatred gradually turned into common business practice, the way things were done.

Related Characters: Ossian Sweet
Related Symbols: Houses
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

While Du Bois pledged that Negroes would return from Europe ready to fight for equal rights, socialists A. Phillip Randolph and Chandler Owen preached the power of armed resistance. “We are…urging Negroes and other oppressed groups confronted with lynching and mob violence to act upon the recognized and accepted law of self-defense,” the pair wrote during the bloody summer of 1919. “Always regard your own life as more important than the life of the person about to take yours, and if a choice has to be made between the sacrifice of your life and the loss of the lyncher’s life, chose to preserve your own and to destroy that of the lynching mob.”

Related Characters: W. E. B. Du Bois, Ossian Sweet
Page Number: 118
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

Then, a woman who lived across the street from Bristol’s house mounted her porch and launched into a harangue. “If you call yourselves men and are afraid to get those niggers out,” she screamed, “we women will move them, you cowards!” That was it. Almost instantaneously the mob began stoning the house. Someone approached the police to ask if they would step aside for five minutes; it wouldn’t take any longer to drive the coloreds away. When the inspector refused to move his men, the mob stoned them too.

Related Symbols: Houses
Page Number: 154
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

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

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: