The exhumation of a long-buried incident in the civil-rights struggle—and a cobwebby corner of the great lawyer Clarence Darrow’s career.
In the 1920s, writes historian and journalist Vine (Families in Pain, not reviewed), a resurgent Ku Klux Klan made significant inroads into many cities outside the South, its organizers having “carved the country into nine regional markets, franchises of hate” and recruited more than a thousand “kleagles,” or salesmen, to spread word of the racist ideology. The Klan made a surprisingly strong showing in Detroit, where, on a hot late-summer day in 1925, a mob besieged the home of an African-American obstetrician named Ossian Sweet, located “in a so-called white neighborhood” whose residents had hitherto merely gawked at the newcomers. In the ensuing fracas, a white man was shot to death, and Sweet was charged with the crime. Enter Clarence Darrow, recruited to defend Sweet through the offices of NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson. The NAACP, writes Vine, “was looking for someone with a reputation that could engender the support of the larger constituency of liberal whites and middle-class blacks,” and Darrow was perfect for the job and conducted the defense with his customary high-toned but careful argumentation. Vine places well the Sweet affair in the context of the vicious racial climate of the period, when lynchings were commonplace and racially motivated rioting destroyed several cities, including Tulsa and East St. Louis, and killed hundreds. She is also a thoughtful commentator on the origins of the organized civil-rights movement and the contributions of great leaders such as Johnson and W.E.B. Du Bois. Her account of the trial itself is sometimes a little vague; Darrow may well have “displayed his gifts for romancing jurors,” but the reader is left to guess just how at turns. Still, her re-creation of key moments in the trial ably demonstrates just why Darrow merits his ongoing reputation as one of the country’s most capable attorneys.
An important slice of American legal history and the history of civil rights.