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

4.05  ·  Rating details ·  2,359 ratings  ·  287 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
Kindle Edition, 415 pages
Published (first published January 1st 2004)
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Average rating 4.05  · 
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 ·  2,359 ratings  ·  287 reviews

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Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle

Boyle is a History Professor at Northwestern University and his book won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction in 2004.

As the clerk of the court prepared to administer the jurors their oath, the Great Defender [Darrow] leaned over the press table on the opposite side of the room. “The case is won or lost now,” he said sotto voce. “The rest is window dressing.”

This is a phenomenal work of micro-history. I was born and raised in Michigan, yet someh/>As
Oct 09, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 do
Oct 29, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Nancy Oakes
Feb 12, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Benjamin Israel
Oct 15, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 10, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It took me almost two months to finish this book. The subject was heartbreaking and interesting, but the writing style just never pulled me in. I learned so many new things while reading this. The one that I most hope to explore some more is about the lawyer Clarence Darrow. I hadn't heard of him before partly because it was so much before my time and mainly because I was never a law student. I imagine that he is often held up as an example to students studying law. I would love to read more abo ...more
Jul 21, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
May 13, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An extremely well-written book about the Ossian Sweet case, about which I knew nothing. Dr Sweet, an African-American, moved into a home in a white neighborhood of Detroit in 1925. A mob gathered to force him out. He and some friends fired into the mob, in self-defense, and killed a white man. They were arrested and tried for murder. Eventually, through the efforts of the NAACP, James Weldon Johnson, Clarence Darrow, and others, they were acquitted. Author Kevin Boyle told this story in a fascin ...more
Sep 28, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 23, 2007 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 was a f ...more
Gary Street
May 27, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Arc of Justice is a non-fiction account of race relations in the 1920's. Times have changed, but many of the underlying factors remain. It follows a black man who was born in the south. Even though the family was desperately poor, he managed to attend college, and then med school. From med school he moved to Detroit where he attempted to purchase a home in a white neighborhood, which resulted in a riot, with one person killed. The defense in the resulting trial was led by Clarence Darrow.
Thomas Shimmel
Mar 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019
Arc of Justice is an extremely powerful, detailed, and well-written saga about the racial history of the United States’ northern migration of blacks from the South, especially focusing on the city of Detroit. The book is centered around the case of Ossian Sweet defending his new home from a white mob in a white working-class neighborhood in Detroit. The lethal shooting of Leon Breiner due to gunshot wounds inflicted from the inhabitants of the Sweet household led to one of the most significant t ...more
Mar 28, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
John Dudley
Apr 14, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was an interesting read that I picked up and put down a few times, before finally soldiering through to the end. The story is remarkable - 1920's urban racial prejudice on trial, featuring some of the most important names at that time in civil rights and in law - and the research is incredibly meticulous, one gets the sense that no stone was left unturned by the author. But at times that dense relaying of the research drags from being a rich, contextual experience to an inundation of trial ...more
Joe Hudon
Aug 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book was published in 2004 about an incident arising from segregation in 1925 Detroit.

It is exceptional in context the author brought to the story. There is a great deal of history to be had, seamlessly told.

As I completed the epilogue, however, I noted Kevin Boyle's assertion that the trajectory of racial tolerance continued to rise for the better in the decades that followed, although he did qualify the statement by acknowledging that there was more to accomplish.
Robert Intriago
A very good historical book. It traces the migration of African Americans from the south to the industrial north after the end of WWI. They believed that they were escaping “jim crow” laws in the south for a better life and jobs in the north. Sadly they encountered more segregation and violence in cities like Detroit and Chicago. The author does a very good job of detailing particular events in the city of Detroit with particular attention the attempts attempts by African Americans to move into ...more
Apr 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I was assigned this novel in my African-American History course at Augusta University and it quickly became one of those books that demanded a thorough rereading. This incredibly detailed recounting of a moment in history that is just shy of a 100 year anniversary must be read by those who want to learn from history...and not be doomed to repeat it. You are a black man in Detroit, 1925. You have just bought a house for your young family and on the second night five hundred angry people gather ou ...more
Jan 29, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In the trial of Dr. Ossian Sweet, historian Kevin Boyle found a story that encapsulates so much of the history of US race relations and traverses the major fault lines of early 20th century America. Boyle skillfully blends broader historical context, illuminating biographical details, and a dramatic court case that reads, at times, like a thrilling courtroom drama. I was struck by how many important figures had some some connection to this case (James Weldon Johnson, WEB Du Bois, Clarence Darrow ...more
Aug 04, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I thought this was a solid, if unspectacular book about a mostly-forgotten landmark trial concerning civil rights in America.

Ossian Sweet was a child of the Jim Crow South at the beginning of the 20th century. After being sent away to be educated up north as a young boy, he ultimately became a doctor and settled in Detroit. He married, had a daughter, and then decided to move in to an all-white neighborhood. That's when the drama begins, as a mob threatened him and his family, leadin
Jan 09, 2008 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
Shirley Freeman
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
Feb 01, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Kaethe Douglas
Filling in a significant gap in my knowledge of race relations and real estate. USians like to talk about racism as if it is something far away. As if racism ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, or with school integration. Or as if it is something that only takes place in the South. The truth is messy and ugly and as current as a local school board trying to re-segregate under the goal "neighborhood schools". I hate people sometimes.

Library copy
Michael Brickey
Jan 18, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Dec 19, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Dec 31, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Winner of a National Book Award, this book is a great introduction to housing discrimination and racial tensions in Detroit in the early part of the 20th century.
Logan McGivern
Dec 06, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Arc of Justice

Quick Summary: My book, "The Arc of Justice" by Kevin Boyle is a non-fiction book that takes place back in the 1920s. This book is about a character named Ossian Sweet, a negro doctor who grew up from nothing and the prejudice that comes fourth to him. Ossian had made enough money to move into a nice suburban neighborhood, however this neighborhood was dominated by the whites. The neighborhood association held a riot and protest in front of his house, throw
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Kevin Gerard Boyle is the William Smith Mason Professor of American History at Northwestern University.