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Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age

4.01  ·  Rating Details ·  1,796 Ratings  ·  231 Reviews
The grandson of a slave, Dr. Ossian Sweet moved his family to an all-white Detroit neighborhood in 1925. When his neighbors attempted to drive him out, Sweet defended himself--resulting in the death of a white man and a murder trial for Sweet. There followed one of the most important (and shockingly unknown) cases in Civil Rights history. Also caught up in the intense cour ...more
Paperback, 415 pages
Published January 1st 2004 by Henry Holt & Col
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Nov 04, 2015 Chrissie rated it really liked it
Everybody knows about the famous Brown versus Board of Education case (1954) where the Supreme Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.

This book covers the earlier Sweet Trials of 1925 and 1926. Here the focus is instead housing/residential segregation. Ossian Sweet (1895 – 1960) was a black American physician who bought a home in a white residential area in Detroit, Michigan. Through armed self-defense he attempted to p
Feb 13, 2008 Kirby rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: subprime lenders, the big three, anyone who voted for kwame kilpatrick
A long, slow, excellent read. Each dense level---the personal story of Dr. Ossian Sweet, the organizational maturation of the early civil rights movement, the rugged, violent, ethnic-based politics of Detroit in the 1920s, the Sweet trial itself---delivers the same contemporary truth in different ways: racism will not go quietly, if ever, because too many institutions and individuals depend on it for both self-esteem and profit.

Boyle uses the 1925 murder trial of Sweet, his wife, and a dozen oth
Nancy Oakes
Feb 12, 2008 Nancy Oakes rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Elizabeth Sulzby
Such an important book for understanding complex and often hidden parts of race relations in the USA. Boyle starts with the Civil War and the immediate aftermath when our national parties were the opposite of their stances today. The Republicans were for Civil Rights and "reconstructing" the renegade South. The Democrats were for conserving (isn't that a cute play on the word conservative) the idealized myth of life on the plantations with slaves and masters in loving relationships, economic sec ...more
Benjamin Israel
Oct 15, 2007 Benjamin Israel rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone
Boyle may be an academic historian but he writes like a novelist. It takes a great story--African Americans asserting their rights and defending them with guns--and puts it into historical context. There are no saintly heroes in this book but real sometimes conflicted people.
Basically it's about a young African American physician in Detroit in the early 1920s who wants to move out of his all-black overcrowded neighborhood and buys a house in a white neighborhood. After numerous threats and while
Apr 14, 2012 Sam rated it it was amazing
Overall, a thoughtful expose into racial tensions within Detroit, MI and elsewhere within the United States during the first quarter of the 20th century. Kevin Boyle's style of writing remains consistently smooth even when transitioning between "academia" style history lessons of the far past, and the more heavily stylized and "dramatic" court scenes involving Clarence Darrow. (The lawyer famously known for the evolutionary "Scopes Trial" of 1925). My only complaint of the book is that at certai ...more
Oct 09, 2007 Janet rated it it was amazing
This book is a non-fictional telling of the history of race relations in Detroit, which are only marginally better now than in the 1920's. Parts of it are as chilling as any piece of horror fiction, doubling the effect by knowing the truth of it. This is the story of what a devastating tool fear is and how it is so expertly used to control others. I think I will now always look at people in authority and ask myself "What method does he/she use to exert control?" If it is that he tries to make pe ...more
Jul 21, 2008 Brian rated it it was amazing
This book won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and for good reason. I consider this to be the best example of historical storytelling I've read. The first part of the book is a riveting, meticulously researched account of an incident between an angry white mob and black physician Ossian Sweet, who recently purchased a home in a white neighborhood in 1920's Detroit. The second part of the book details the ensuing trial, led by legendary trial attorney (and my idol) Clarence Darrow. The eve ...more
Shirley Freeman
Dec 30, 2011 Shirley Freeman rated it liked it
This was the Michigan Reads book for 2011. While it wasn't always a page-turner, I'm really glad I read it. The author, Kevin Boyle, is an historian with a keen eye for rich detail. He tells the story of Ossian Sweet - a young, talented and ambitious doctor living in Detroit in the mid-1920s. Sweet, the son of slaves, grew up in the south and made his way north during the Great Migration. He completed school, college and medical school before establishing a medical practice in Detroit. He and hi ...more
Jan 09, 2008 Tung rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
The National Book Award-winning nonfiction account of an African-American doctor (Dr. Ossian Sweet) who moves into a white neighborhood in Detroit in 1925, and the murder that occurs as a result of the white mob riot that tries to force out the doctor from the neighborhood. The book traces the history of Sweet and his family, as well as the larger history of segregation and racism that shaped not only Dr. Sweet and his reaction to the mob violence, but also shaped Detroit, the nation, and race r ...more
Jun 08, 2009 Rina rated it it was amazing
Okay, Shira, I finally read it. And I'm glad I did. Passed the copy you gave me on to a friend who runs Housing Opportunities Made Equal here in town. Interesting on development of housing segregation in tight housing markets and when you know that 30 years later the bulldozed Black Bottom to make Lafayette Park...Where I work now, Over-the-Rhine, is what happens without the bulldozer- a different set of housing battles.

Kate- read this- this happened a few blocks from where you grew up. It inclu
Oct 23, 2007 Helen added it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: detroit area residents
another book group choice. i feel naive that i didn't know that racial tensions in the city of Detroit went back to the 20s. this true tale of racial intolerance and housing segregation deepened my understanding of the issues which continue to face the D. The Ossian Sweet House still stands on the east side near where my grandmother's family used to reside. I drove by. When I finished the book and went to reread the quote in the front about the long arc of justice, I found the copy I was reading ...more
Nov 06, 2015 Yasmin rated it it was amazing
Although there has been the criticism that this is a long laborious book that is exactly how the events in real life played out. Kevin Boyle does a fantastic job with his research and recreating history for the reader. Even though the final sentence of the denouement is utterly tragic it is a marvellous book. The background of the people primarily involved is laid bare and all of it well worth a read. No matter if for some it seems sluggish you won't be disappointed you started with this book an ...more
Aug 23, 2015 Don rated it liked it
In many ways this is a fantastic, heart-felt book about a forgotten act in the civil rights drama. In 1920's Detroit a black doctor Ossian Sweet buys a house in a white neighborhood. A mob rains rocks on the house, someone in the house shoots back killing one and wounding another and everyone in the house is charged with murder. The white accusers lie, lie and lie but Clarence Darrow and the NAACP ably defend the Sweets to ultimate freedom. Boyle pulls no punches in his portraits. All of that is ...more
Tom Schulte
This is a detailed study of the life of Ossian Sweet. Sweet was an American physician in Detroit, Michigan, noted for his armed self-defense in 1925 of his newly purchased home in a white Detroit neighborhood against a racist mob trying to force him out. This lengthy account is his life from Bartow, FL to his lonely suicide March 20, 1960, in his office apartment in Detroit, MI. Beside details of the day Sweet, family members, and friends found themselves in an armed stand-off with the crowd (I ...more
Michael Brickey
Jan 18, 2009 Michael Brickey rated it it was amazing
This is a remarkable story about racism, de facto segregation, and how one African American couple confronted the injustice. It is incredibly well written and reads as a novel. Boyle has all the citations to support his story, but his writing should be a lesson to all historians. This is an excellent example of history as storytelling and the story told is one which all should understand: the struggles of African Americans in the 20th century.
Tobi S.
Dec 12, 2014 Tobi S. rated it it was amazing
Civil Rights history told through the life of one man, Dr Ossian Sweet; his journey as a 12 year old boy leaving his family and the Jim Crow South to school in Xenia, Ohio to the practice of medicine in Detroit. This is the important account of the trial of Dr. Sweet and 10 others, including his wife and brothers, for the murder of a white man on the night a white mob attempts to drive Dr. Sweet from his newly purchased home in a white neighborhood of Detroit. This is an important case in the Ci ...more
Dec 31, 2008 Nicole rated it really liked it
I was asked to read this book and like it. A tall order. It was true that helped and an important part of history.
I just kept thinking that if people were righteous it wouldn't need to be like that. And house debt was introduced in a very historically interesting way.
Dec 19, 2008 Rob rated it it was amazing
A stirring account of Detroit in 1920s. If you think that violent racism really only existed in the south then read this book. It will open your eyes as it did mine. Amazing when I think about my grandparents being alive at the time.
I really love discovering gems in my reading, particularly in my reading of historical novels, and this book has many gems. Revolving around an event that occurred in Detroit in 1925, this book enhanced my knowledge of the history of both Detroit and Florida, the NAACP, Clarence Darrow, Reinhold Niebuhr, Frank Murphy, and a few other key figures in American history.

This book is about a “colored” doctor’s family that dared to move into a white neighborhood in Detroit in 1925, leading to a mob sce
May 14, 2015 Mom rated it it was amazing
Northwesten history professor Kevin Boyle takes a relatively obscure and forgotten incident in 1925 Detroit and shows how it was a pivotal point in the development of the Civil Rights movement. The result reads more like an exciting courtroom drama than an academic text and is a very timely saga for students of today's justice system. Boyle's strength is in making the everyday life of people of the era come alive. We feel we are there when Ossian Sweet and his wife Gladys look at their new home, ...more
Mar 19, 2014 Sheri rated it really liked it
In Arc Of Justice, Boyle tells how Dr. Ossian Sweet, a "Negro" doctor in Detroit during the 1920s, purchased a home in a blue collar white neighborhood in Detroit, and what happened when Ossian and his wife then moved into that house. When a mob of screaming, rock-throwing, threatening people (estimated at several thousand) descended on his home, Dr. Ossian and half a dozen friends thought they were prepared, but things went awry. Shots were fired from his home, two white men were hit (one fatal ...more
There is something in the timelessness of Kevin Boyle's book that is frightfully relevant to today's events.

The Ossian Sweet case and the injustice it represents for early 20th century America continues to exist today - and that is terrifying.

To think that we, as a nation and as a people, have not changed in almost century, and yes, lynchings are over and Jim Crow is over but the problem hasn't been solved. The government put a band-aid on a sweltering wound and is surprised at the problems
Feb 25, 2015 Laura rated it it was amazing
I started this book while I was a grad student and finished it this week, seven or eight years later. Written by Kevin Boyle, a history professor then at Ohio State and published for a popular audience, Arc of Justice won the National Book Award in 2007. Praising its strengths today may be a bit late to the party, but I picked it up again after seeing “Selma,” after months of thinking through the underlying structural issues that lead to Ferguson, to Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, and I think there ...more
Sep 21, 2016 Anne rated it really liked it
Boyle has written history like a novel, bringing together the story of the Sweet trials and the incident that led to them as well as supporting the history with an intimate look at Ossian Sweet and his family and ancestors. He paints a picture of race relations throughout Sweet's. life and in Detroit. But he also tells the story of the two nights the Sweets and their friends spent dreading and fearing the crowd gathered outside as well as any novelist. The book is obviously well researched and i ...more
Jun 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
Well researched, extremely well-written, of a trial lost from our consciousness. The author does a really spectacular job recreating the personalities of those involved, based on meticulous reading of journals, letters and court transcripts. Clarence Darrow, fresh from his success at the Scopes trial, takes on the defense of a black homeowner who fires into a crowd of rock-throwing whites, killing one. The murder charges got the attention of the NAACP, which was looking for an impact case. Rivet ...more
I purchased this book for two reasons: (1) I'm interested in true stories involving racial conflict and (2) it won the national book award that year. It's been almost a decade since I read this book and it still is somewhere inside of me. The way it all played out was especially HEARTBREAKING. I think it's important to read these stories because RACISM is in our DNA as Americans. As much as I would like to think that we have moved past stories like this, I don't think we really have fully.

I know
May 20, 2016 Aidan rated it it was amazing
In 1925 Dr Ossian Sweet was charged with murder. His crime was firing into an angry white mob which was outraged that Sweet and his wife had broken Detroit's informal colour lines and bought a house in a predominantly white neighbourhood. The subsequent trial brought national attention to the issue of housing segregation and helped to launch the NAACP legal fund which went on to win landmark Supreme Court cases against Jim Crow laws.

Boyle's book is history at its best. He manages to weave intima
Detroit, Darrow, LDF. . .you know you're in for a riveting and heartbreaking, yet inspiring tale. Arc of Justice traces the murder trial of the Sweet family in 1920s Detroit. Having moved into a new house in an otherwise all white neighborhood, the Sweets were quickly confronted with a vicious mob wielding a potentially deadly welcome. With the scars of racial violence far from healed over, the tense standoff culminated in a shots fired, presumably from the Sweet house, to ward off the attackers ...more
Feb 15, 2013 Torie rated it it was amazing
Incredible book. Fascinating topic, and quite possibly the best prose writing of any non-fiction book I've read. His style is utterly compelling, dramatic, and novel-like.

I didn't realize it until the end, but the book has a kind of meta-structure. The argument Darrow eventually used to win the trial incorporated the entire history of slavery and Jim Crow as it related to Ossian Sweet, and that's exactly the structure adopted for the telling of his story in this book. You see how all of history
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Kevin Gerard Boyle is the William Smith Mason Professor of American History at Northwestern University.
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