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Detroit burning

A tale of a white mob, the black response, and a murder trial in the racially divided America of the Jazz Age

Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age
By Kevin Boyle
Holt, 415 pp., illustrated, $26

On Sept. 9, 1925, in Detroit, a group of heavily armed black men fired bullets into a crowd of white people, killing one person and wounding another. Charged with murder, they were represented by the most famous lawyer in the country, Clarence Darrow. The rest is history -- history that was more or less forgotten until Kevin Boyle, an associate professor at Ohio State University, restored it to the urgency of news in this masterful account, which is a finalist for the National Book Award. (Another book about the case, Phyllis Vine's ''One Man's Castle: Clarence Darrow in Defense of the American Dream," also was published this year.)

The African-Americans that book focuses on were not the pacific heroes typically trotted out during Black History month; they took a stand. ''Arc of Justice," to its great credit, tells a story about the civil rights movement that is neither familiar nor uplifting.

Dr. Ossian Sweet is the epic's tragic hero. The grandson of a slave, he put himself through college and medical school by stoking coal and waiting tables. Howard University, where Sweet studied medicine, was the nation's preeminent historically black university, but that did not shelter it from the violent racial pogroms that marked the early 20th century. The Washington, D.C., campus was only a short distance from the World War I military camps that had housed white soldiers awaiting deployment to Europe. A rumor in 1919 that one of their wives had been raped by a black man sparked four days of lawlessness.

Which atrocities, if any, Sweet actually witnessed is unclear. His later murder defense was premised on a kind of ''battered Negro's syndrome" -- all the racial violence he had witnessed during his 30-odd years caused a fear and aversion to angry white mobs.

It is possible that Sweet saw the soldiers beat down the black men near the White House or assault colored passengers whom they pulled from streetcars. Likewise it is possible that growing up in Florida he witnessed 300 rabid white folks burn at the stake a 16-year-old black youth suspected of raping and murdering a white woman. He claimed he had.

Boyle seems dubious. Sweet was only 5 at the time, and no responsible parent would have let a black boy anywhere near that crowd. There is no doubting, however, that all of this white mischief took its toll on Sweet's psyche.

So why, on establishing a successful medical practice, did he decide to move his wife and infant daughter to an all-white neighborhood in Detroit? Sweet's motive may have been as simple as the fact that the houses were nicer, even if blacks had to pay a premium to buy them. Maybe, on the other hand, he was trying to impress on Detroit's colored bourgeoisie that he had arrived.

It is doubtful that he was inspired by any grandiose political intent or that he was spoiling for a fight with white folks. Ultimately, however, politics found him. Like another African-American man 70 years later, Sweet became the cause celebre in a high-profile murder trial featuring a flamboyant, high-priced defense attorney who played the race card.

Race was the only card that working-class white folks in Detroit had to play. The Irish, Italians, and Poles who had immigrated there had only recently achieved whiteness themselves. Forced into semi-voluntary servitude to the auto assembly lines, they were not in the mood to welcome a Negro doctor to the neighborhood.

It was entirely predictable, then, that the night after the Sweets occupied their new home hundreds of white people gathered outside, hooting and hollering. In fact Sweet had anticipated trouble. He had assembled nine friends and business associates and hidden firearms throughout the house. While he and his wife were downstairs trying to figure out how to handle the mob, the house was pelted with stones. A rock broke the upstairs window, and then, from upstairs, a volley of shots was fired. A man in the crowd was hit in the back and killed, and another suffered a wound to his leg.

All 10 men in the house, along with Sweet's wife, were arrested and charged with murder. The black community immediately embraced them. Black folks were sick and tired of being sick and tired.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People took charge of the case. Its leaders saw a good cause and an even better fund-raising opportunity. When the legendary Darrow agreed to handle the defense, the NAACP set out to turn a murder trial into a public relations extravaganza.

This extraordinary episode in American history has been forgotten; the only good thing about that is that most readers will not know how the story ends. Even if this were fiction, it would be a compelling read.

But Boyle has a doctorate in history and a lyricism that approaches Toni Morrison's. This is not all good -- the book is overly long and occasionally pedantic. Sometimes the writing overwhelms the story.

But in an important, scholarly work of history, writing that is sometimes too poetic is a delightfully unexpected flaw. It is, moreover, one of the few mistakes that Boyle makes. In the main the writing is graceful and sometimes even beautiful. It endows the story with the majesty and consequence of an epic. The African-Americans, especially, are fully human. In Sweet, Boyle portrays a hardscrabble, egocentric overachiever. You root for him, but you would not invite him to tea. This is the kind of book that causes students to major in history. Boyle's evocative presentation of Detroit in 1925 helps us better understand our contemporary world, from race relations to urban politics to how it feels to come home to a neighborhood at the end of a long day.

Malcolm X, the African-American revolutionary, complained about history lessons that presented African-Americans exclusively as victims. He would have appreciated Boyle's stories of black people who, in Malcolm's words, not only ''bled for freedom," but who were willing, for freedom, ''to make others bleed."

Paul Butler is a professor at George Washington University, where he teaches criminal and civil rights law.

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