Monday, October 01, 2018

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

by Mark Skinner, East Ensley Branch Library

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

Just over 90 years ago, Ossian Sweet, an African American doctor, and his family purchased a house in a white neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan. Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle examines the racial conditions and conflict in 1920s Detroit and weaves together a complex narrative of historical events that follows the sad and triumphant story of Dr. Ossian Sweet.

In the backdrop of the Sweets' eventual move to Detroit and subsequent increase in racial tensions was the Great Migration of Southern African Americans moving to the urban North. Promises of higher wages were met by the bleak reality of the job market for unskilled African American laborers. Making only slightly more than a sharecropper, many African Americans took menial labor jobs and paid exorbitant rent in emerging ghettos, such as Detroit’s Black Bottom. Sweet emerged from humble beginnings to become a doctor who practiced in Black Bottom. His education and income placed him within Detroit’s black elite; yet, he still faced the same discrimination and prejudice as lower-income African Americans.

Along with the Great Migration, one of the central stories in Arc of Justice is the often violent nature of residential segregation in the North. Violence typically followed when African Americans moved into a white neighborhood. White homeowners and real estate agents formed neighborhood improvement associations that sought to maintain the neighborhood by keeping African Americans out. It was believed that when an African American family moved into a neighborhood, real estate values could plummet. The uncertainty of job markets and the crushing debt of home mortgages caused fear among white middle-class homeowners. Against the threat of violence, Sweet, his family, and friends mounted a defense of his home. When his home was attacked, the ensuing defense left one man dead and resulted in the arrest of Sweet and 10 others.

After being charged with murder, Sweet and the other defendants were represented by Clarence Darrow, fresh from the famous Scopes Monkey Trial. Eventually Sweet and the others would be found not guilty. For the proponents of equality, the trial was a victory as an all-white jury acquitted 11 African Americans for murder in 1926. Yet, subsequent years of racial conflict dwarfed the great victory Sweet’s case seemed to achieve.

Arc of Justice presents a very compelling narrative that followed the life one man while interweaving important historical events and trends. Boyle’s work is highly recommended as it is an incredibly accessible story about complex events that draws readers in and frequently reads like a novel.

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