Monday, April 25, 2005

Part 1 of this review is here (scroll down, past the Thomas Friedman book review).

THE TRIALS OF OSSIAN SWEET and his 10 co-defendants in late 1925 drew national attention at the time. It was the first time in the history of black people in America that a jury (an all-white jury) affirmed the basic principle that the right to defend self, family, and property from physical attack applied to both black people and white people. The two trials (the first, in which the defendants included 10 men in addition to Ossian Sweet, ended in a mistrial; the second resulted in Ossian Sweet, tried alone this time, being acquitted of all charges) were also famous as much because of the stature and fame of the defense attorney. Clarence Darrow -- famed from coast to coast because of the Scopes trial -- took the case at the request of the NAACP, whose leaders felt that Ossian's best chance for acquittal was being defended by a white lawyer with top-notch credentials. After reading Kevin Boyle's book, it's clear that Darrow's presence was key to the ultimate verdict of not-guilty. Ossian himself, with his quietly dignified manner and eloquent testimony, played a big part in convincing the jury to free him; but without Darrow's electrifying statements throughout the trial on white racism and its overwhelming and powerful influence on the most deeply rooted fears, expectations, assumptions, and responses of black Americans, it's questionable whether the testimony of a black man alone -- even one as professionally successful as Ossian Sweet -- could have secured Sweet's acquittal at that time and place in American history.

Kevin Boyle's writing ability impresses as much as his historian's skills. Arc of Justice is written in the best narrative nonfiction style. Prof. Boyle doesn't just plop us into the fateful night when a mob of whites tried to drive the Sweets out of their new home. Horrifying as those descriptions are, without the context of Dr. Sweet's entire life and experiences before that night, it would be far more difficult to understand and feel the full measure of terror and outrage that filled the mind and heart of Ossian Sweet on that terrible night in September, 1925. When you begin to understand that events like a young black man, accused of raping and murdering a white woman, being tied to a tree by a mob of white men who piled extremely dry wood all around the tree, doused the wood with gasoline, and then handed the match to the woman's husband, were not isolated incidents at all, but routine and commonplace in the lives of black Americans in the South, where Ossian was born and raised, you can better grasp the entire lifetime of memory and experience that informed Ossian's feelings on that one night in 1925. When Ossian Sweet, hidden in some bushes, watched that young man slowly consumed by those flames, screaming and screaming and screaming until he was finally burned to death, he was only five years old. Needless to say, the scars never left him.

And when you know this other American history, which most white Americans never have to think about and probably to a large extent aren't even aware of, you can also grasp the significance of an all-white jury acquitting a black man of the charge of murder for having defended himself, his family, and his home from mob attack -- a charge no white man would ever have even had to face at all in the same situation. Although it would be another 40 years before Martin Luther King, Jr., would quote Theodore Parker's observation that "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," every black man and woman in America could feel the truth of that sentiment on the day that Dr. Ossian Sweet was found not guilty of murder for the crime of self-defense.

If you would like to read more about Dr. Ossian Sweet and the 1925 trial, here are some resources:

"I have to die a man or live a coward": the saga of Dr. Ossian Sweet.

Key Figures in the Sweet Trials

The Trial of Dr. Ossian Sweet

Interview with Kevin Boyle, winner of the National Book Award

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