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Arc of Justice By Kevin Boyle

A Great Read to Honor Black History Month

Detroit, 2005: White Stripes mania cools off. The automobile market is so financially bear that it is setting its own forest fires.

Detroit, 1925: Henry Ford doubles wages to keep up with demand for his product. The city's population quadruples in size from twenty-five years before.

In Arc of Justice, Ohio State University history professor Kevin Boyle dramatizes the life of Ossian Sweet, an African American doctor who had the audacity in the 1920s to not only move his family into a White neighborhood but to shoot at a marauding, lynching crowd. His uprising resulted in the death of one man and the maiming of another. Boyle shows how this little-known case not only became another trophy for attorney Clarence Darrow, but a catalyst for the modern day NAACP.

The book's first half outlines Sweet's biography before the trial; including, the factors that made him become one of only 2500 African American doctors at the time of the case. The rest of the book documents how the crime mobilized African American justice seekers who had suffered through years of abuse and miscarriage of justice under the "separate but equal" law. (There is a brief and sad P.S. to the story of only five pages).

It was as if this was the case that everyone unilaterally decided not to ignore. The NAACP publicized the case like no other and raised 76 thousand dollars for Sweet's defense fund. They also solicited the legal help of Clarence Darrow, a longtime champion of underdogs -- Communists, evolutionists, and the like. Boyle says Darrow left histrionics at the door and chatted and empathized his way to victory with the jurors. Darrow asked jurors to forget everything they had ever been taught in order to do the right thing. For the first time, the jurors did as they were told. During Sweet's first trial, five jurors voted to acquit while seven insisted on second degree murder. The case was declared a mistrial. During the retrial, Sweet was finally deemed innocent.

If you're going to pick up one book for Black History Month -- and you've already read the much-lauded The Autobiography of Malcom X -- give Arc of Justice a whirl (the book won the National Book Award for non-fiction). I found myself asking why I had not been taught this case in school when Darrow's other cases such as the Scopes Trial are the bread and butter of any history teacher's syllabus. I'm glad that Boyle could remedy the error.

Arc of Justice By Kevin Boyle
432 pages/hardcover
ISBN: 0-8050-7145-8