Kirby's Reviews > Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age

Arc of Justice by Kevin G. Boyle
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's review
Feb 13, 2008

it was amazing
Recommended for: subprime lenders, the big three, anyone who voted for kwame kilpatrick
Read in February, 2008

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 other friends who helped defend the Sweet home against mob violence in a white working-class neighborhood as a starting point for a much broader examination of Detroit's political and racial tensions.

My frustration (not with the book, but with the social reality of then and now) is how racism not only perverts critical questions of the common good, but over time erodes any interest in even asking them. The Great Migration swept tens of thousands (5,700 Black folks in Detroit in 1910; 81,000 by 1925) into the Black Bottom. High demand and a limited number of places where new Black arrivals could live allowed landlords to leave properties unrepaired yet filled well beyond capacity. Landlords shamelessly rented out the tops of pool tables and outhouses as the city refused to install sewer lines or deliver services, causing waves of public health crises. Instead of thinking through adequate planning in a city that was bursting at the seams everywhere due to rapid industrialization, the question became why 'they' (Southern migrants) chose to live in such squalid areas and ended with blaming poor neighborhood conditions on their mere arrival. An examination of present-day Detroit bears the mark of a decades-old unwillingness to address persistent systemic issues.

Homebuying efforts demonstrated the same concept. In the mid-1920s, housing appraisers in Detroit made it official practice to downgrade the value of any neighborhood that had a single Black resident. This happened at the same time that the city's real estate developers raised home prices and prevented families from building their own homes on purchased plots, necessitating mortgages with exorbitant interest rates for working-class whites. A black family moving into a white neighborhood was not only a blow to white pride, but also had a measurable and often disastrous economic effect. The combination was lethal and by the time this and other related practices (restrictive covenants, steering) were made illegal, the psychological damage was done. The question of whether to regulate real estate developers in order to prevent financial exploitation was subsumed by the effort to keep neighborhoods as white as possible. Broader economic issues go unexamined; segregation is accepted as preference rather than design.

I appreciated the meticulous research throughout, especially with respect to the painstaking strategy behind the establishment and funding of LDF under Walter White, James Weldon Johnson, and others via the high profile of the Sweet trial; Gladys Sweet's gumption; the homage to HBCUs and Black social organizations in creating a safety net where none existed. Recently though, I end up casting a side-eye to the genre of narrative nonfiction (odd considering I'm still working on the Glass compilation). Seems like Boyle's effort could be categorized in the same manner that he casts the trial itself--an attempt to shoehorn an uneven, sprawling event into a symbol. It works well here, but I'm generally skeptical. It all ends up feeling too sitcom-neat, but I'm still working through what type of rendering would seem more authentic.
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Temitayomiyoshiseun Jemison So far I can see this book in action and I am familiar with the areas it speaks of to date. I wish was a mandatory read for the Detroit Public Schools.

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