Arc of Justice A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age

Kevin Boyle

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

448 Pages



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Winner of the National Book AwardPulitzer Prize Finalist
A New York Times Notable Book of 2004
A Chicago Tribune Best Book of 2004
Winner of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Tolerance Book Award In the Roaring Twenties, neon lit the night, jazz played, and in northern cities glistening new skyscrapers beckoned Negroes worn down by southern terrors. They came with battered bags and hope. Ossian Sweet was among them, carrying his parents' dreams for his future and little else. The grandson of a slave, the young physician arrived alone in Detroit—a smoky swirl of speakeasies and sprawling factories where progress and Henry Ford had pumped competition to fever pitch. Beginning with the hot summer night in 1925 when Sweet's outraged white neighbors circled his house to drive his family out, Arc of Justice is grand nonfiction storytelling—an epic canvas of dreams deferred and justice compromised, empowered by a triumphant spirit. Historian Kevin Boyle uses the story of Sweet, caught in the grip of history, to explore America in 1925, when the Klan moved north to incite hatred, and a new organization called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—led by W. E. B. Du Bois and his Talented Tenth—rallied blacks to raise their voices and to begin the march toward equality, dignity, and self-respect. Boyle captures the streets of Detroit as they were, introducing a gallery of characters from both the white and black communities. He pulls us into the riot that threatened the Sweets' home and the events—following a white neighbor's shooting—that led to the couple's indictments for murder and the ensuing highly politicized police investigation. Using testimonies, court documents, and his own extensive research, Boyle moves from prosecutors to defenders, piecing together the citywide cover-up intended to convict and punish the Sweets, while simultaneously charting the NAACP's defense campaign. With the opening of the Sweets' trial and the appearance of legal genius Darrow—whose theatrics and fiery passion made him a ferocious defender of the oppressed—Boyle's narrative becomes courtroom drama at its finest. Capturing the tense, often surprising legal battle, Boyle takes us through the intricate face-offs between the wily Darrow and the adept, utterly determined prosecutors, re-creating the scenes that drew the attention of all Americans to the plight of Doctor Sweet and his wife.


Praise for Arc of Justice

"An impressive work. Deftly weaving together biography, courtroom drama, and social history, Mr. Boyle has produced a meticulously researched and engrossing book . . . Mr. Boyle spins a good tale that holds the reader's attention till the very last line."—Patricia Cohen, The New York Times

"Boyle's Arc of Justice is by far the most cogent and thorough account yet of the trial [of Ossian Sweet] and its aftermath."—Robert F. Worth, The New York Times Book Review

"Boyle tells [this story] with thoroughness [and] flair . . . Arc of Justice does justice both to its complex protagonists and the issues they embraced. Masterfully weaving crime reporting and social history, Boyle has produced a fine and moving work."—Steve Oney, Los Angeles Times

"[A] deep and broad [study of] the first large-scale encounters of blacks and whites in the North."—Elinor Langer, The Oregonian

"Rarely do historians make the past jump off the page, much less show contemporary relevance compellingly. Kevin Boyle is a welcome exception when it comes to the history of racial enmity in 20th-century America . . . Boyle has written a book that ought to become a standard text and might just become a classic of historical literature . . . [Boyle] is masterful at placing every nuance of the Sweet case within a larger context."—Steve Weinberg, Houston Chronicle

"With his masterful new book . . . Kevin Boyle joins the ranks of distinguished narrators of American life. In luminous and unforgettable language, Boyle recounts the tale of Ossian and Gladys Sweet, whose gripping story illuminates America in the rising era of the automobile and turns toward the civil rights struggles looking just ahead . . . What Boyle achieves in these pages is no less than a tour de force. This [is a] cracking good yarn of murder, mayhem, and courtroom drama . . . Boyle unearths a whole new history of 20th-century America. His gift is to frame the story just right—large enough to encompass lynching, the immigrant experience in urban America, the politics of black uplift, the automobile explosion, ethnic politics in our cities, and so on, but small enough to permit one family's story to keep the reader enthralled. Here is a model of literary nonfiction, a fine piece of scholarship that challenges our preconceived ideas about civil rights, speaks to many of our current predicaments, and holds the reader like a fast-paced detective novel . . . Stories that matter should be told as though they mattered. This Boyle has done with uncommon success."—Timothy B. Tyson, associate professor of Afro-American studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, author of Blood Done Sign My Name, in The Washington Post

"Masterful . . . An important, scholarly work of history . . . The writing is graceful [and] it endows the story with the majesty and consequence of an epic . . . This is the kind of book that causes students to major in history. Boyle's evocative presentation of Detroit in 1925 helps us better understand our contemporary world, from race relations to urban politics."—Paul Butler, The Boston Globe

"Historian Kevin Boyle's riveting new book, Arc of Justice, meticulously reconstructs [and] gracefully conveys, in fascinating detail, the human drama and the suspense of the Sweet case, as well as the larger context of Northern race relations that serves as its necessary backdrop . . . Boyle's chief strength is his ability to bring his protagonists and antagonists to life on the printed page . . . Arc of Justice is a remarkable snapshot of a historical moment. Skillfully infusing his narrative with dramatic tension and explorations of his principals' psychology and motivation, Boyle brings a novelist's touch to his history . . . Arc of Justice illuminates the social, economic, and political forces that brought Ossian Sweet, his allies, and the white mob together on that fateful day in 1925. At the same time it renders a vivid . . . portrait of the worlds of white and black Northerners in the interwar years."—Eric Arnesen, Chicago Tribune

"Writing with the immediacy of a journalist and the flair of a novelist, [Boyle has] produced a history that's at once an intense courtroom drama, a moving biography, and an engrossing look at race in America in the early 20th century."—Gregory M. Lamb, The Christian Science Monitor

"With scrupulous care and clear prose [Boyle has] brought to light a long-forgotten incident that . . . helped set in motion the release of segregation's clammy grip on American society. [This book is] also a page-turning, true-life courtroom drama."—Gene Seymour, Newsday

"Dr. Ossian Sweet bought a house in a white neighborhood in 1925. Detroit exploded as a result, and a largely forgotten, yet pivotal, civil rights moment in modern American history unfolded. Kevin Boyle's vivid, deeply researched Arc of Justice is a powerful document that reads like a Greek tragedy in black and white. The lessons in liberty and law to be learned from it are color blind."—David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of W. E. B. Du Bois

"By turns a crime story and a gripping courtroom drama, a family tale, and a stirring account of resistance, an evocation of American dreams and a narration of American violence, Boyle's study takes us to the heart of interior lives and racist social processes at a key juncture in U.S. history."—David Roediger, Babcock Professor of African-American Studies and History, University of Illinois, and author of Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past

"Boyle's page-turning account of the incident and the landmark murder trial [is] exhaustive . . . He spins a suspenseful narrative [and] his dynamic character sketches . . . make for riveting courtroom theatre."—Raymond Fiore, Entertainment Weekly

"Brings immediacy and drama to the social and economic factors that ignited racial violence, provoked the compelling court case, and set in motion the civil rights struggle."—Vanessa Bush, Booklist

"What a powerful and beautiful book. Kevin Boyle has done a great service to history with Arc of Justice. With deep research and graceful prose, he has taken a single moment, the hot September day in 1925 when Ossian and Gladys Sweet moved into a bungalow on Garland Avenue in Detroit, and from that woven an amazing and unforgettable story of prejudice and justice at the dawn of America's racial awakening."—David Maraniss, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of They Marched into Sunlight and When Pride Still Mattered

"A welcome book on an important case. The civil rights saga of Gladys and Ossian Sweet finally has the home it has long deserved."—Philip Dray, author of At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America

"Careful and detailed . . . Arc of Justice is a necessary contribution to what seems like an insoluble moral dilemma: race in America."—Paul Hendrickson, author of Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy

"Arc of Justice is one of the most engrossing books I have ever read. It is, at once, a poignant biography, a tour de force of historical detective work, a gripping courtroom drama, and a powerful reflection on race relations in America. Better than any historian to date, Kevin Boyle captures the tensions of the Jazz Age and the troubled and exciting history of America. . . . Arc of Justice is a masterpiece."—Thomas J. Sugrue, professor of history, University of Pennsylvania, and author of the Bancroft Prize-winning Origins of the Urban Crisis

"History professor Boyle has brilliantly rescued from obscurity a fascinating chapter in American history that had profound implications for the rise of the Civil Rights movement. With a novelist's craft, Boyle opens with a compelling prologue portraying the migration of African-Americans in the 1920s to the industrial cities of the North, where they sought a better life and economic opportunity. This stirring section, with echoes of Dickens's Hard Times, sets the stage for the ordeal of Dr. Ossian Sweet, who moves with his young family to a previously all-white Detroit neighborhood. When the local block association incites a mob to drive Sweet back to the ghetto, he gathers friends and acquaintances to defend his new home with a deadly arsenal. The resulting shooting death of a white man leads to a sensational murder trial, featuring the legendary Clarence Darrow, fresh from the Scopes Monkey trial, defending Sweet, his family, and their associates. This popular history, which explores the politics of racism and the internecine battles within the nascent Civil Rights movement, grips right up to the stunning jaw-dropper of an ending."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"A murder case in Detroit lies at the heart of labor scholar Boyle's wide-ranging examination of race relations early in the 20th century. One September evening in 1925, physician Ossian Sweet and his young family spent their first night in their new home on Garland Avenue, a previously all-white block four miles east of downtown. The very next evening, a crowd formed across the street from the Sweets' bungalow, which now sheltered some volunteer defenders. Rocks were thrown, shots were fired from the house, and a white man lay dead. Boyle meticulously tells the story of the Sweets, one family among the many who participated in the grand effort to do away with Jim Crow laws. The '20s were the decade of the New Negro, the Harlem Renaissance, and the rise of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The KKK's Invisible Empire spread in response to black militancy, but the NAACP also grew, thanks to remarkable activists like James Weldon Johnson and William White. The Great Migration brought strivers by the thousands from oppression in Dixie to unexpected prejudice in the urban North, including the Motor City. Born and raised in Detroit, Boyle depicts the politics and people of the industrial metropolis, vividly evoking life in the city's Black Bottom ghetto. He presents a balanced, considered portrait of Sweet, born in rural Florida, a graduate of Wilberforce University and Howard Medical School, and of other players in the drama. Along the way, he establishes an early tension that, after instruction in some African-American history, culminates in a classic courtroom drama starring the Great Defender himself, Clarence Darrow. Told with exemplary care and intelligence, this narrative chronicles inflammatory times in black and white America and pays tribute to those heroes who struggled to get Old Jim Crow where he lived. [This is] the way history should be written."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

The streets of Detroit shimmered with heat. Most years, autumn arrived the first week of September. Not in 1925. Two days past Labor Day and the sun blazed like July. Heat curled up from the asphalt, wrapped around telephone poles and streetlight stanchions, drifted past the unmarked doors of darkened speakeasies, seeped through windows thrown open to catch a breeze, and settled into the city’s flats and houses where it lay, thick and oppressive, as afternoon edged into evening.1
Detroit had been an attractive place in the nineteenth century, a medium-size midwestern
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  • Kevin Boyle

  • Kevin Boyle, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University, is the author of The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968, the coauthor with Victoria Getis of Muddy Boots and Ragged Aprons: Images of Working-Class Detroit, 1900-1930, and the editor of Organized Labor and American Politics: The Labor-Liberal Alliance, 1894-1994. A former associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, he is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he now lives with his wife and their two daughters in Bexley, Ohio.