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Jim Crow in Motor City

By Timothy B. Tyson,
associate professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of "Blood Done Sign My Name"
Wednesday, December 1, 2004; Page C01


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

By Kevin Boyle

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Henry Holt. 415 pp. $26

With his masterful new book, winner of a National Book Award, Ohio State University historian Kevin Boyle joins the ranks of distinguished narrators of American life. In luminous and unforgettable language, Boyle recounts the tale of Ossian and Gladys Sweet, whose gripping story illuminates America in the rising era of the automobile and turns toward the civil rights struggles looming just ahead.

In 1925 Sweet, an African American physician educated at Wilberforce University, Howard Medical School, the University of Vienna and the Sorbonne, moved his young family into a cottage in a previously all-white neighborhood of Detroit. Knowing that white terrorists raged along the color line, Sweet brought along his younger brother, several other African American men, and a small bundle of firearms and ammunition. A mob, whipped up by a local neighborhood association that urged people to run the Sweets out by force if necessary, descended on the house. The angry throng pelted the little house with rocks, threatening to overrun the Sweets and their friends. Someone inside panicked and fired into the crowd, killing one white man and wounding another.

The ensuing murder trial unfolded in a Detroit where the Ku Klux Klan was poised to take over the city. Attracting as many as 50,000 people to its Detroit rallies, the bedsheet brigade had recently launched a write-in mayoral campaign in 1924 that actually won, though the local Democratic machine narrowly defrauded them in a recount. In those days, the KKK and local white neighborhood associations routinely terrorized black families who dared to defy residential segregation. On Christmas Eve 1923, thousands of Detroit Klansmen had torched a cross at City Hall and welcomed a hooded Santa Claus to entertain Motor City's white children.

Even so, the city's real estate establishment, not the Klan, guided the campaign to segregate housing in Detroit. The pistons of Motor City apartheid were real estate agents whose livelihoods were tied to segregation. And housing policies not only in Detroit but across the urban North meant that white homeowners lost everything if they failed to defend segregation. "As the walls went up," Boyle writes, "there was no outcry from even the most liberal of northern whites, no calls for an end to the obvious injustices that the marketplace inflicted." White liberals preferred to frame racism as a personal failing "to be solved by understanding, by civility, by a softening of the human heart." When mobs set upon African American families in the North to deprive them of their freedom, liberals wrung their hands and condemned the violence. "But it never occurred to them," Boyle observes, "to attack the economic structures that transformed hatred into organized violence."

By the time white liberals learned that lesson and passed fair housing legislation, it was too late. "Segregation had become so deeply entrenched in urban America it couldn't be uprooted, no matter what the law said," Boyle laments. "To this day, the nation's cities remain deeply divided, black and white neighborhoods separated by enduring discriminatory practices, racial fears and hatreds, and the casual acceptance by too many people that there is no problem to address."

This omission lay at the heart of the failure of the civil rights movement 30 years later. When that movement seized the national spotlight in the 1950s, the NAACP would not support nonviolent direct action, let alone armed self-defense, but in 1925 the national office used the Sweet case as a rallying cry for the "New Negro" movement. As NAACP leaders Walter White and James Weldon Johnson hoped that it would, the challenge to Sweet's right to defend his home and family attracted the support of thousands of black citizens and white sympathizers, and cash poured in. Their crumpled bills and hoarded coins, half-matched by checks from white philanthropists, provided the foundation of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, or "the munitions of war," as Johnson put it, "for such a fight in behalf of justice for the Negro as has not been fought since the Civil War." This fund fueled the NAACP's long march through the courts, which eventually shattered the legal foundations of segregation.

What Boyle achieves in these pages is no less than a tour de force. This cracking good yarn of murder, mayhem and courtroom drama takes Ossian Sweet from his boyhood in Jim Crow Florida through his remarkable rise to prominence and to this harrowing legal battle, and along the way Boyle unearths a whole new history of 20th-century America. His gift is to frame the story just right -- large enough to encompass lynching, the immigrant experience in urban America, the politics of black uplift, the automobile explosion, ethnic politics in our cities, and so on, but small enough to permit one family's story to keep the reader enthralled. Here is a model of literary nonfiction, a fine piece of scholarship that challenges our preconceived ideas about civil rights, speaks to many of our current predicaments and holds the reader like a fast-paced detective novel. And I am not even going to mention the eye-popping ending. Stories that matter should be told as though they mattered. This Boyle has done with uncommon success.

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