[Marxism] A landmark civil rights case

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 26 06:19:35 MDT 2004

NY Times, August 26, 2004
When a Moving Van Could Spark a Neighborhood War

A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age
By Kevin Boyle
415 Pages. Henry Holt. $26.

Ossian Sweet was 5 years old when he hid in the Florida bushes as a howling 
white mob set fire to a black teenager. When he was at Howard University's 
medical school in 1919, he watched gangs of white veterans rampage through 
the streets of Washington, D.C., beating and shooting blacks. Once he moved 
to Detroit to practice medicine, he followed the news of frequent lynchings 
down South, the riots in Tulsa, Okla., and the burning of Rosewood, Fla. 
And he listened on a hot summer afternoon in 1925 as a colleague described 
in terrifying detail how, just hours after he had moved into a white 
neighborhood, a furious mob had ransacked his home and forced him to turn 
over the deed.

But when Dr. Sweet and his wife, Gladys, moved into their new house on an 
all-white street on Detroit's east side a few weeks later and the rocks 
started hammering the roof and shattering windows, the story took a 
different turn. At the evening's end, one white man lay dead and another 
wounded, shot by one of the panicked black men who had come to help Dr. 
Sweet protect his Garland Avenue home. Although clearly within the legal 
definition of self-defense, the Sweets and the nine other men there that 
night were charged with first-degree murder.

The case was a significant moment in the early civil rights movement, 
spurring the creation of the N.A.A.C.P.'s Legal Defense Fund and 
spearheading a nationwide assault on residential segregation. Still, it had 
been largely forgotten, probably because it was covered only sporadically 
by white newspapers at the time.

As historians round out the story of America's stumbling march toward civil 
rights, however, such incidents are being retrieved and examined. 
HarperCollins released Phyllis Vine's "One Man's Castle,'' about the Sweet 
case, this spring, and in July Michigan placed a historical marker at the 
Garland Avenue house. Now Kevin Boyle, a historian at Ohio State 
University, has published "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, 
and Murder in the Jazz Age," his account of the incident and trial.

"Arc of Justice" is an impressive work. Deftly weaving together biography, 
courtroom drama and social history, Mr. Boyle has produced a meticulously 
researched and engrossing book. Though the prose overheats at times, Mr. 
Boyle spins a good tale that holds the reader's attention till the very 
last line.

In a story with no shortage of ready-made villains and heroes, Mr. Boyle 
resists easy typecasting to draw characters in all their flawed humanity. 
Ossian Sweet was hailed in the black press as a national symbol of the "new 
Negro militancy." But pride and the hunger for status had as much to do 
with his decision to buy the Garland Avenue house as bravery or principle. 
Dr. Sweet was an insecure striver, a sort of "ebony Babbitt," in Mr. 
Boyle's phrase, driven by his family and his African Methodist Episcopal 
faith in self-improvement to break into the "Talented Tenth," the black 
elite that W. E. B. Du Bois said would lead the race. Meanwhile, Clarence 
Darrow, who joined the defense team three months after the end of the 
Scopes trial, was as attracted to the national limelight as to the cause of 
racial justice; the N.A.A.C.P. was as interested in raising money as in 
getting not-guilty verdicts.

The Sweets' ordeal was a powerful example of the racial prejudice surging 
through Northern cities in the 20's. The uneven and fragmented treatment of 
blacks hardened after World War I as nearly a million blacks journeyed 
north and competition for jobs intensified. The Klan grew explosively. 
Haphazard separation turned into systematic and codified segregation. 
Respected blacks who had lived in white neighborhoods for years with no 
trouble now suddenly faced vicious rejection. As one black newspaper put 
it, if lynching has been the "peculiar institution of the South," then 
"forceful residential segregation" is fast becoming "the peculiar 
institution of the North."

full: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/26/books/26cohe.html

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