Every year the Michigan Humanities Council invites Michiganders to participate in a statewide initiative, the Great Michigan Read. This year’s selection, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, explores a crucial moment in the northern Civil Rights movement—the events leading to the trial of African American physician Ossian Sweet and his family.
On September 9th, 1925 Dr. Sweet and his wife Gladys moved into their new home, crossing the color line into an all-white neighborhood on the east side of Detroit.
Two days later, a crowd of whites gathered in the street to drive the family away. Dr. Sweet and 10 others chose to stay, armed and barricaded inside the house, to defend against the mob. Tensions reached their limit and someone fired into the crowd. Two whites were shot and killed, and the 11 people inside the Sweet home were charged with first degree murder.
Michigan Radio’s Jennifer White spoke with Kevin Boyle, author of Arc of Justice.
The start of a northern system of segregation
Dr. Sweet’s legal battle—backed by the NAACP who hired legendary defense attorney Clarence Darrow—forced Detroiters to confront questions of racial equality at a pivotal moment in the city’s history.
“Detroit in the 1920s was the center of the most important industry in the world. It was Silicon Valley. And what that meant was that Detroit was becoming this magnet for people around the world,” says Boyle.
Detroit’s population boom was driven by an influx of European immigrants and southern blacks—drawn by job opportunities to Michigan’s industrial capital.
For the first time, the city was home to a large, non-white population.
According to Boyle, “it’s exactly this moment when Dr. Sweet decides to move into that neighborhood, that the northern system of segregation—that segregates neighborhoods along color lines—is being formed. And so Dr. Sweet is confronting one of the most powerful forms of segregation as it’s in its infancy.”
A city divided
The trial of Dr. Sweet and his associates found supporters on both sides of the color line.
“African Americans really rally to this case, because they see that this system of segregation is coming together and this is the moment they have a shot at stopping it,” Boyle says.
Whites, too, identified with the Sweet family.
Detroit in the 1920s was home to 30,000 members of the Klu Klux Klan. “The clan in those days was anti-black of course, but it was also anti-Semitic, it was anti catholic, and so there’s a huge divide running through the white community as well,” says Boyle.
A different history of civil rights
The history of the southern civil rights movement is anchored by stories of struggle and change. Overcoming Jim Crowe laws meant that nobody had to ride in the back of the bus; anyone could drink from the same fountain.
But these moments of success are less apparent in northern states, where neighborhood segregation crept in quietly and settled deeply—aided by steering and redlining.
“The hard part is what happens if you add in stories like Dr. Sweet to our understanding of civil rights struggles,” says Boyle, “because the system of segregation that he struggled against in 1925 hasn’t been defeated. It remains in place and American cities to this day remain deeply divided along that color line.”
- By Meg Cramer