"Charged With Being Black"
Violent racism in the United States was never just a Southern aberration. It happened everywhere. And in the mid-1920s some of the most brutal outrages occurred right in the middle of America's heartland. One of the most notorious – and historically significant – began in Detroit one hot, fall evening in 1925 when a howling mob converged on the intersection of Charlevoix and Garland. Until one day previously this had been an exclusively white neighborhood, but just recently Dr. Ossian H. Sweet, a successful black physician, had bought a trim little bungalow at 2905 Garland. The vendor had been skittish about selling to Sweet but, smelling an opportunity for an unexpected windfall, he demanded a $6,000 premium over the original asking price of $12,500 to secure the deal. After much haggling, on Sept 8 Sweet and his family moved in. That night some disgruntled locals gathered outside the Sweet, shouting insults, enough for the doctor to ask some friends and relatives around the following evening, just in case there was any trouble. At 8pm they had just settled down to play cards when they heard a clattering sound on the roof, as if someone had thrown a stone or bottle.
They ran to the windows. Outside, a mob much bigger than the night before – between 400-500 strong and marching under the banner of the Waterworks Improvement Association (WIA) – had gathered in the street. At first they just chanted slogans, but as the mood got uglier, racial epithets of the very worst kind began to fill the night. Then the rock-throwing began. According to one eyewitness, stones were hitting the house "like hail," and within seconds not one of Sweet's neatly curtained front windows was intact. Everyone inside the house ran upstairs for safety. The attack lasted until 8.25 p.m.. This was when a volley of gunfire – some 15-20 shots – suddenly rang out from the house. One of the mob fell to the ground clutching his leg; another, 33-year-old Leon Breiner, took a bullet to the head and died almost instantly. In the mayhem that followed, scores of police officers were drafted in to restore order. After brief questioning, all 11 people in Sweet's house were arrested and charged with murder. At first their defense was handled by three local black attorneys, but on October 7 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) wired Clarence Darrow, asking him to take charge.
In the fall of 1925 Darrow was the most famous advocate in America and the most hated. No lawyer has been more publicly loathed. Millions denigrated him as "The Great Atheist," seeing in his shaggy, overhanging eyebrows and beetling gaze the work of the Devil, a perception doubly reinforced just two months earlier when Darrow had ridiculed the concept of Creationism during the so-called "Scopes Monkey Trial" in Tennessee. And now the Great Atheist had come to Detroit to defend 11 black people on charges of murdering a white man.
Darrow saw the case in simple terms: Ossian Sweet and those present at his house were merely defending themselves. In order to counter this notion, when the trial began on November 13, state prosecutors paraded no fewer than 70 witnesses through the court, most of whom claimed to have observed the attack, without having been any part of it. Darrow, dripping sarcasm, derided their claims to have been merely innocent bystanders, and compelled each to admit that the WIA had been formed only in response to Sweet's purchase of a home in the neighborhood. The drubbing handed out to WIA member, Eben B. Draper, was typical. Asked if Sweet's house purchase had influenced his decision to join the WIA, Draper shrugged, "Possibly."
"Did it?" pressed Darrow.
"You joined that club to aid in keeping that a white district?"
And so it went. The prosecution put them up, and Darrow smashed them down. But this was merely the overture. Darrow's reputation had been built, not on his cross-examination technique, which was rarely more than average, but on his unrivaled ability to communicate with a jury. Other advocates have matched his passion, some his eloquence; a few his record; none has come close to capturing the aura of nobility that shrouded this crumpled bear of a man. That was Darrow's secret. No matter what the case, he always managed to convey an invincible impression that his was the way of right and enlightenment.
In his closing address, Darrow spelt out the plight of the African-American in 1920s Detroit – a ready source of cheap labor for the auto assembly plants, yet denied basic human rights, including the right to live where they wished. Darrow said that if the roles had been reversed, and a white family had been defending their property against a black mob, they would not even have been arrested. "My clients are charged with murder, but they are really charged with being black." Strong stuff, but it still failed to sway the people who really mattered, and on November 27, after 46 hours of exhausting, often rancorous deliberation, the jury announced itself deadlocked and a mistrial was declared.
Some expected this to mark an end to the tragedy, but the DA's office would not be denied and it announced that Ossian Sweet's brother, Henry, who admitted firing shots in the general direction of Breiner, would stand trial again, this time alone.
The second trial began on April 19, 1926. On this occasion Darrow spent what was for him an unusually long time on jury selection – more than a week – but by its conclusion he had weeded out the more obvious bigots and felt confident of gaining a verdict. He had also decided to broaden the range of his attack. Now it wasn't just a family in Detroit, it was the whole African-American race – 11 million people – that was demanding justice. Each day the court was thronged with black spectators, each sensing that their collective fate rested on the 69-year-old shoulders of Clarence Darrow.
He did not let them down. The evidence was much as before, but what made the difference was Darrow's summation to the jury. It ranks amongst the most powerful and moving courtroom speeches ever made. Shorn of lofty rhetoric and expressed with a compassion that only the stoniest heart could have ignored, at its core throbbed the ever-present reality of being black in America:
"I imagine that they can't rub color off their faces, or rub it out of their minds. I imagine it is with them always. I imagine that the stories of lynchings, the stories of murders, the stories of oppression is a constant topic of conversation. I imagine that everything that appears in the newspapers on this subject is carried forward from one to another until every man knows what others know, upon the topic which is the most important of all to their lives."
Darrow then delivered a gut-wrenching litany of racial abuse, hatred and intolerance, incidents that had blighted every corner of America. He spared no one, least of all himself. Twice he seemed undone by fatigue, only to suddenly spark back into life, as if suddenly energized by some new revelation, some new outrage. Finally, he turned one last time to the jury:
Darrow's Finest Hour
"Gentleman, what do you think is your duty in this case? I have watched day after day, these black, tense faces that have crowded this court. These black faces that now are looking to you twelve whites, feeling that the hopes and fears of a race are in your keeping. This case is about to end, gentlemen. To them, it is life. Not one of their color sits on this jury. Their fate is in the hands of twelve whites ... I ask you, in the name of progress and of the human race, to return a verdict of not guilty in this case!"
Then Darrow slumped to his chair, exhausted. For seven hours he had held the courtroom spellbound. Reportedly, the trial judge, Frank Murphy, as he left the bench took a friend's hand and said, "This is the greatest experience of my life. That was Clarence Darrow at his best. I will never hear anything like it again." He added an ironic codicil: "He is the most Christlike man I have ever known."
Now it was up to the jury. The next day, May, 1926, they returned a verdict of not guilty. Darrow had won what many consider to be his greatest victory. All charges in the case were dropped and Ossian Sweet tried to get on with his life. But it didn't work out so well. A series of personal tragedies sapped his energy and on March 20, 1960, he put a bullet in his own head.
On 11/21/1975 the house at 2905 Garland was listed on the State Register. In 2004 a State of Michigan Historical Marker was erected outside the house to commemorate its part in the struggle for civil rights.
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