September 27, 2011 at 1:00 am

Former Detroiter's book 'Arc of Justice' shows all civil rights stories don't have a happy ending

Dr. Ossian Sweet, who received a not guilty verdict in a 1925 killing. Sweet’s home on Garland, where the incident occurred. (The Detroit News)

Journalism may be "the first, rough draft of history," but history doesn't always get the story right. The historical narrative handed down about civil rights has been that since the Civil War, things have been getting better every year for the descendants of slaves. Kevin Boyle's National Book Award-winning 2004 book, "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age" (Henry Holt), shows how things got worse for African-Americans during the 1910s and '20s, in America. Much worse.

Boyle's book goes into great detail about the infamous incident in Detroit's racial history, the murder trial of a black doctor, Ossian Sweet, and several others after a man was killed in 1925 during an attack on the house Dr. Sweet bought in a white neighborhood on Garland on Detroit's east side.

"Arc of Justice" was chosen by the National Humanities Council as the 2011-12 Great Michigan Read, which encourages people throughout the state to read and discuss the book.

Excerpts from "Arc of Justice" are running in a special section in Thursday's Detroit News, and Boyle will spend much of the fall making appearances across his home state.

Boyle, a professor at Ohio State University, grew up on Detroit's east side.

"One of the things that it took me a while to realize, when you do a civil rights book, you think this is about triumph — that hard things happen, people stand up for a principle, people get hurt, maybe even killed, but at the end, change comes," says Boyle, 51. "It took me a good long time to get my head around the idea that in this case, the arc of justice was about tragedy, not triumph."

Without giving the ending away, while the Sweet trial ended with a "not guilty" verdict, the aftermath was no victory for the doctor or his family.

After the great trauma of the Civil War, after President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, Reconstruction, the period right after the Civil War, was a period of great progress for African-Americans, with many even elected to office.

Increasingly, though, as Southern blacks poured into northern cities to find work that paid better than farm labor, overcrowding and racial tensions led to trouble.

Violence in the North

While it's a long-held assumption that the North was free of terrible conditions for blacks, in fact there were many violent racial incidents in the early 20th century in which they were targeted in northern cities, such as East St. Louis, Springfield, Ill. (ironically, Lincoln's hometown), and Washington, D.C.

Segregation in housing became institutionalized in northern cities, including Detroit, with real estate covenants written into the deeds of houses to keep out blacks or other minorities deemed "undesirable."

There was nothing in the law books to stop it.

Boyle describes how that happened. While slavery ended in the 19th century in several other countries, only in the U.S. were former slaves given complete equal rights so quickly.

"I think it's because the Civil War had been so devastating that northerners wanted the sense that the sacrifice was meaningful," Boyle says. "What they didn't do, or didn't do long enough, was put the real force of law behind that promise."

Roots of segregation

"Arc of Justice" positions the Sweet incident in the context of that racial and social history. Boyle masterfully portrays how the Ku Klux Klan was working up those of Anglo-Saxon extraction (so-called 100 percent Americans) against the hordes of recent white immigrants flooding to Detroit, those same working-class white ethnic minorities whose interests were usually intertwined with blacks were terrified of losing the value of their homes if their neighborhoods were integrated.

It's a familiar story for anyone familiar with the history of Detroit immediately after the 1967 riots. However, Boyle's book makes clear that housing segregation, and the violent clashes that followed any attempt to end it, had its roots much further back.

Detroit in the 1920s was a boom town, and Boyle clearly enjoys re-creating that long-ago city, at once gorgeous, with skyscrapers rising every day, and rough and tumble, with the grime of smokestacks staining concrete and lungs, with thousands of immigrants jostling for position.

The city and Boyle's book are filled with world-class characters. Feisty Detroit Mayor Johnny Smith was one of them.

Boyle describes the working-class mayor as the bane, and also the target, of the burgeoning KKK. He writes: "A Catholic, a labor sympathizer and a wet (he was against Prohibition) who promised to put Negroes in uniform and give them guns: to a Klansman, there was no more horrifying combination."

Frank Murphy, simply a name on a government building to Detroiters today, was another character, a redheaded Irish-American and presumed progressive who was the presiding judge in the Sweet case.

Colorful commentary

Then there's Clarence Darrow, America's most famous lawyer, who was called in by the NAACP to help lead the defense team.

"If you can't have a good time writing about Clarence Darrow, you should give it up," Boyle quips.

In fact, Boyle has taken heat for some of Darrow's more colorful pronouncements.

At one point during the trial, Darrow was in full rant about the neighbors on Garland who made up the mob outside Sweet's house.

Darrow sneered that one resident, a supposedly cultured teacher of several decades, (mis)pronounced the Detroit street "Goethe" as "Gothey," as the rest of the neighborhood did.

"I have a good friend who said, 'how could you do that, that's how we all pronounce Goethe,'" Boyle says. "Hey, it wasn't me, it was Darrow! Darrow could be cruel."

Boyle is looking forward to discussing "Arc of Justice" with Michiganians as he goes as far north as Marquette for the Michigan Humanities Council.

"I feel incredibly fortunate about the whole thing," Boyle says of the "Great Michigan Read." "I'm a college teacher, but I don't teach the book, I've never assigned it, so I'll be interested to see how students react to it. I'm also curious to see how people read it who aren't in the Detroit area."

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