OVERRIDE

Arc of Justice

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

Kevin Boyle

Holt Paperbacks

Winner of the National Book Award
Pulitzer 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.

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ONE
WHERE DEATH WAITS
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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REVIEWS

Praise for Arc of Justice

“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

"Arc of Justice perfectly illustrates why W.E.B. Du Bois insisted that a keen sense of drama and tragedy is the ally, not the enemy, of clear-eyed historical analysis of race in U.S. history. 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, author of Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past

“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

“There are many hidden and semi-hidden and half-forgotten markers of the civil rights movement. Kevin Boyle's careful, detailed study of a 1925 murder trial in Detroit is one such precursing marker. 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

“A welcome book on an important case. In Kevin Boyle’s evocative account, 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

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: a period that witnessed the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and the flowering of the Harlem Renaissance; the clampdown on immigration and the emergence of an ethnic insurgency; the crystallization of racial segregation both north and south and the rise of the modern civil rights movement. The troubled and exciting history of America in the 1920s comes alive in his vivid portraits of striving black physician Ossian Sweet, charged with murder; Sweet’s brilliant legal team led by the incomparable Clarence Darrow; his tireless advocates James Weldon Johnson and Walter White; and trial judge and future Supreme Court justice Frank Murphy. Arc of Justice is a masterpiece.”
—Thomas J. Sugrue, Bicentennial Class of 1940 Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania, author of the Bancroft Prize-winning, Origins of the Urban Crisis

Reviews from Goodreads

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Kevin Boyle

  • Kevin Boyle, a professor of history at Ohio State University, is the author of The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968. A former associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, he is also the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies.
    He lives in Bexley, Ohio.
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Arc of Justice

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

Kevin Boyle

National Book Awards Winner, National Book Critics Circle Awards - Nominee, Michigan Notable Books - Winner, Society of Midland Authors Book Awards - Winner, Pulitzer Prize - Finalist, National Book Awards Winner, National Book Critics Circle Awards - Nominee, Michigan Notable Books - Winner, Society of Midland Authors Book Awards - Winner, Pulitzer Prize - Finalist

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