four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
13-Nov-Dec-2004
By: 
Kevin Boyle
user_rating: 
0

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

A-ArcJusticeIn 1925, the accomplished black physician, Ossian Sweet, moved with his family into an all-white Detroit neighborhood. Though promised police protection, Sweet assembled nine armed men inside the house in anticipation of the white mob that arrived, throwing rocks and coal. Shots fired in retaliation killed one man and wounded another. The violence resulted in a sensational murder trial, with Scopes monkey trial attorney Clarence Darrow defending Sweet and his family and the NAACP footing the bill. The trial and its aftermath, legendary at the time, became emblematic of the acrimonious racial divisions of early 20th-century America.
Henry Holt. 432 pages. $26. ISBN: 0805071458

Houston Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Using one dramatic case to illuminate the bigger picture, Boyle has written a book that ought to become a standard text and might just become a classic of historical literature. … Boyle, who teaches at Ohio State University, is masterful at placing every nuance of the Sweet case within a larger context, not only in Detroit but nationally." Steve Weinberg

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Writing with the immediacy of a journalist and the flair of a novelist, [Boyle]’s produced a history that’s at once an intense courtroom drama, a moving biography, and an engrossing look at race in America in the early 20th century." Gregory M. Lamb

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Save for occasional didacticism ... Arc of Justice does justice both to its complex protagonists and the issue they embraced. Masterfully weaving crime reporting and social history, Boyle has produced a fine and moving work." Steve Oney

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"So deep and broad is this look at the first large-scale encounters of blacks and whites in the North that what is unsatisfying about it in the end is not the telling but the tale." Elinor Langer

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Arc of Justice is by far the most cogent and thorough account yet of the trial and its aftermath. … But his account lapses now and then toward the simple-minded melodrama that infects some writing about civil rights, in which the ‘poison’ of racism substitutes for more complex motives." Robert F. Worth

Critical Summary

Arc of Justice is at once a biography of Sweet and and the experience of African-Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era. Critics laud Boyle’s thorough research, reporting, and complex portrait of the main characters, including Ossian Sweet, James Weldon Johnson, and Clarence Darrow. Some reviewers saw the account as biased; Boyle does not devote any time to fleshing out the dead man or the white mob–he literally lays it all out in black and white. Still, all note Boyle’s clear depiction of legitimate economic fears that, along with racism, motivated those characters. And, all agree that Arc of Justice is a compelling, well-crafted story as well as a valuable historical account of these events.