Deadly shots heard around suburbia

An ordinary black man becomes a hero in volatile 1920s America

Most white Americans know little about the black American experience between the imposition of Jim Crow laws after the Civil War and the Brown v. Board of Education decision that began to unravel these laws in 1954. Kevin Boyle has used a single 1925 court case in Detroit, and the whirlwind that surrounded it, to help fill in the huge blank. Writing with the immediacy of a journalist and the flair of a novelist, he's produced a history that's at once an intense courtroom drama, a moving biography, and an engrossing look at race in America in the early 20th century.

When a black physician, Ossian Sweet, moved his wife and child into their new house on Garland Avenue in a white neighborhood of Detroit, he knew there could be trouble. He had a childhood memory of watching a black man being burned to death by a white mob in his hometown of Bartow, Fla.

The early 1920s had seen the lynching of dozens of black men around the country. Though never a member of the NAACP, Dr. Sweet subscribed to black publications that kept him informed on outrages, such as the more than 100 blacks who died in white rioting in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921, including a black doctor, who, after treating the wounded, was killed by white teens. Sweet knew that in 1923 the black citizens of Rosewood, Fla., had taken up guns to defend themselves against a white rampage. Earlier that year in Detroit, blacks who had tried to move into white neighborhoods had been forced out.

Sweet had prepared for trouble by gathering 10 black men - including two of his brothers - and several guns inside his home. When a crowd gathered the evening of Sept. 9, and began to pelt the house with rocks, shots were fired from a second-floor window. On the street below one man lay dead and another wounded.

The trial that followed became a focal point for the NAACP, whose leader, James Weldon Johnson, had been scouring newspapers looking for an incident to rally black Americans, something with enough "phosphorescence of celebrity" to illuminate the black cause "so brilliantly that white America couldn't help but take notice." The NAACP decided to pay for the defense of Sweet and his codefendants and immediately appealed to its constituency for contributions. "If in Detroit the Negro is not upheld in the right to defend his home," Johnson said, "then no decent Negro home anywhere in the United States will be safe."

To ensure national press coverage, he hired the most famous lawyer in America, Clarence Darrow, fresh from the Scopes monkey trial in Tennessee earlier that summer and primed for another "trial of the century," even though that meant Johnson would have to shove aside a team of black lawyers already on the case.

The People v. Sweet ended in a mistrial after four tense weeks. When the prosecution tried again, it decided to concentrate on its best case: Sweet's brother Henry had admitted to firing a gun, though not to shooting anyone. He was acquitted.

Dr. Sweet - never a star at college, never a public activist - was an ordinary man who sought a better life for his family, Boyle says. Yet momentarily he became a hero of the black community, fulfilling his lifelong dream of climbing from poverty into W.E.B. Du Bois's "Talented Tenth," the elite of African-American society. But the triumph was short-lived: Sweet's young wife soon died of illness, and he drifted back to the ghetto before committing suicide in 1960, just as the civil rights movement began to gain momentum.

For Boyle, the trial symbolized an important shift in white attitudes toward blacks. "Not that racial and ethnic hatred disappeared," he says. "But they became disreputable, a sign of crudeness, stupidity, and moral failing, a product of the prejudice that, as Darrow had said, made men terribly cruel."

The trial also led to the creation of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. But it failed to change the kind of housing segregation that was being cemented into American society. "To this day, the nation's cities remain deeply divided, black and white neighborhoods separated by enduring discriminatory practices, racial fears, and hatreds," Boyle says, "and the casual acceptance by too many people that there is no problem to address." Perhaps most ironically, he notes, "of all the cities in the United States [today], none is more segregated than Detroit."

Gregory M. Lamb is a Monitor staff writer.

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