Arc of Justice
I recently came across Kevin Boyle’s review of Ira Berlin’s short new book, The Making of African America: the Four Great Migrations. While the Berlin book sounds fantastic (and I recommend the review), the byline reminded me of how much I appreciated Boyle’s own work, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age.
Arc of Justice is one of my favorite examples of the kind of history that takes the life of one relatively unknown individual to illustrate broad themes about the period in which the person lived (for other great examples, see here, here, and here.) In this case, Boyle recounts the story of Ossian Sweet, an African-American doctor who risks his life by attempting to move his family into a home in an all white Detroit neighborhood in the 1920s. During the course of Ossian’s story, the audience learns about the social history of the great migration, class divisions within the African-American community, developments in black higher education, legal strategy within the NAACP, and the racially motivated violence that plagued northern cities in the years immediately following World War I. The book also reads like a suspenseful novel, includes an amazing courtroom scene featuring Clarence Darrow, and contributes to a growing scholarship on the “long civil rights movement” and struggles for racial equality in the North. This is popular history at its best.
While beautifully written, the book is tough to skim. I once served as an instructor for a class that read Arc of Justice as part of a Twentieth Century American history survey. The professor included a bonus question on the final exam asking what major event happens to Ossian Sweet at the end of the book. Nearly every student wrote that he kept his home and prospered. Without giving too much away, they did not get the bonus point.