Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Arc of Justice

Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle. Kevin Boyle (c. 2004).

Racial storylines cut through time and geography of American history. Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice traced segregation from the destination to the source. The author’s construction of characters and segregation defined a solitary outcome that ensued in the streets, and then in the courtroom.

Boyle structured the narrative of the 1925 fight against real estate segregation as a culmination of events. The narrative centered on a house with African American owner-occupiers in a white neighborhood of Detroit. A mob, which contained experienced segregationists, surrounded and assaulted the house. The mob hurled rocks at windows and bricks at the walls. To halt the mob, African American tenants fired shots and struck two white men, killing one. After loading the house’s occupants into a police vehicle, the author filled in the back story.

First, Boyle described Ossian Sweet. He was an African American doctor, who purchased and began to move into the house on Detroit’s Gardland Avenue. Armed with the arsenal of men and weapons, Sweet prepared to be assaulted. Sweet’s preparation derived from his childhood experiences, college doctrine, and events of the previous summer. Sweet’s grandparents lived through the bonds of slavery and the hope of reconstruction. His parents battled with the constitution of segregation. Sweet’s own life challenged the opaque ceiling of segregation. As a child in South Florida, he witnessed barbarous acts against his race. At college and medical school, W.E.B. Dubois encouraged African Americans to violently fight for their place. After graduation from Howard University medical school, he setup a profitable practice, and traveled the world. By the summer of 1925, Sweet established himself as an elite member in Detroit society. The same summer saw violent ejections of African Americans from their homes in whit
e neighborhoods. When Sweet moved to a white neighborhood, he prepared to defend his house. However, Sweet’s goal was not to shoulder the race; to him, “it was partly the way that discrimination struck at the professional pride that he was so eagerly embracing” (93). Antecedents built his stoic character with a yearning to be admired.

As a character is introduced, the author told the background of the individual. Lawyers, NAACP leaders, blue-collar workers, and police officers became caricatures of the author. Each had abnormal traits expanded to the point of predictability. As a rhetorical, flirtatious lawyer, Clarence Darrow wound his six hour closing argument, and discovering his wife was not in the audience, moved closer to his newest mistress. Working class Caucasians were stereotyped as a powerful mob composed of weak units. The white mayor and judge were characterized as politically savvy, yet gutless. Each man skirted the edge of defending Sweet. No matter the outcome of the trial, the positions taken by the mayor and judge allowed them to side with the victor.

Arc of Justice’s greatest strengths were the stories behind the creation, maintenance, and vulnerabilities of segregation. After of the Civil War, Reconstruction took on a feverish quest for reconciliation. Commercial interests of the Republican Party encouraged justice to unfold for African Americans. Freed slaves benefitted from actions of “political opportunists more interested in bringing northern business interests to Florida—and fattening their wallets” (53). From the south, hot on the tails of African American migration, segregation spread northward. Powerful individuals ensured their commercial and power structure through segregation. Real estate agents, blue-collar workers, and politicians created dual marketplaces to maximize their commercial gain. Everyone who profited from segregation “knew how to be cruel. But they had to create a social system premised on cruelty” (55). Ossian Sweet journeyed the path prescribed by the African Methodist Episcopal Church: “by their accomplishments, they would force whites to acknowledge their equality” (51). Sweet challenged the institution as an honest man clearing more hurtles and achieving more than the violent offenders sustaining segregation. His achievement was his brick to the window of segregation.

Boyle’s writing had a varied pace, and indulged in speculation. When writing of assaults, concise phrases conveyed quickness. When writing the history of Darrow, longer sentences slowed the message. To move quickly, he cited headlines, and memoirs to move slowly. In order to delight the story, narrative license seeped into the authors writing. To discuss tactics the legal defense may use, Boyle riddled a paragraph with no citations and the indefinite terms “could” and “might.” Speculation confused the history, but excited the story.

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