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Thursday, July 2, 2020

Upcoming Fall Exhibit: Racial Justice and the Law

This fall, the Riesenfeld Center will open a new exhibit on racial justice and the law, continuing a number of ongoing conversations at the Law School regarding race and criminal and civil law in American society. The exhibit will consider the struggle for equal rights through legal cases and events that saw those rights denied, limited, or advanced, amidst determined and continuing movements for equality.

The Center's rare book collection holds an important set of titles related to 19th-century anti-slavery movements, and to civil rights movements in the late 19th and 20th centuries. As leaders like W. E. B. Du Bois remarked in the early 20th century, while Reconstruction had real but limited effects, civil rights movements suffered a grave setback with the end of Reconstruction in 1877. 

At the same time, organizations dedicated to the achievement of equal civil rights emerged. The Afro-American League, led by Timothy Thomas Fortune, and the Afro-American Council - the latter of which held its annual meeting in 1902 in St. Paul - were eventually succeeded by the NAACP, founded in 1909 by W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Mary White Ovington, and Moorfield Storey, among others. These and other organizations arose in response to segregation enforced by law, and lawless violence, including lynching, faced by African Americans. In the late 19th century, many states passed segregationist Jim Crow laws, and with the moral blindness of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) segregation was ruled a constitutionally-protected principle.   

The NAACP initiated lawsuits targeting segregation and discriminatory laws, and made progress in some cases. It pursued anti-lynching laws, and lawsuits following race riots, which eventually resulted in some expansion of federal jurisdiction over states' criminal justice systems. A prominent case with strong NAACP support was that of Dr. Ossian Sweet, which features in our collection and reflects on the history of segregation in America. The following description is based on the excellent, detailed account of the Sweet trials by Mike Hannon for our Clarence Darrow Digital Collection

In 1925, Dr. Sweet, an African American medical doctor, moved with his family into a segregated white neighborhood in Detroit. Throughout America, segregation was maintained informally and formally. Often racial covenants prevented African Americans from owning houses in white neighborhoods (the practice flourished in Minneapolis, for example)The 1920s were a time of nation-leading demographic growth in Detroit, which saw an influx of African American and white workers looking for jobs and housing. The Ku Klux Klan also had a presence in the city and local political clout. In the case of Sweet, as in other cases, white neighbors resorted to tactics of intimidation and violence to drive African Americans from their homes. 

In September 1925, just after moving into a house on Garland Street, the Sweet family faced a mob massing outside their home. Family members and friends were called to help while the crowd began to hit the house with rocks and yelled epithets. Shots rang out from the house and struck two people, one of whom was killed. In the subsequent trials of Dr. Sweet, his family and friends, only Henry Sweet, Ossian's brother, would admit firing into the crowd.

The defense of Sweet, his family and friends was organized by the NAACP, which recruited the services of the nationally-renowned trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow. (Darrow's storied career is preserved in our library, which holds the largest collection of his letters, and material from his life and cases. Darrow was friends with founders of the NAACP and served as a member of its general committee.) At the first trial, for murder and conspiracy, Darrow and the defense team consistently argued that the Sweet family acted in self-defense while in direct fear of their lives. 

One aspect of Darrow's argument was that the 'reasonable man' standard, applied to gauge the fear of the defendants, had to be that of a black man in a similar situation of violence and threatened violence. The arguments at the first trial were bolstered by the testimony of several other African Americans, who had been chased from their Detroit homes by fear of violence and threats; and others who testified that between 400 and 500 people were present outside the Sweet home on the fateful day. 

In a long closing argument, Darrow argued that suffering due to race and deep inequality were at the heart of the case, appealing to a white jury to see past their own racial prejudice. In his jury instructions, Judge Frank Murphy noted that a black man's home was his castle in the same way as that of a white man: there was no right to invade or assail it (familiar as the 'castle doctrine,' with its long provenance). The jury deliberated for 46 hours and came back deadlocked; the judge declared a mistrial.  
Jury in the Henry Sweet trial

The prosecution vigorously pursued a retrial, and Darrow filed for the defendants to be tried separately. The first tried was Henry Sweet. The trial followed similar lines of argument; Darrow now had more success in hounding prosecution witnesses. In part, he pressed for admissions that a neighborhood homeowners association was organized to keep African American owners away and would use violence to do so. During the closing argument, attended by hundreds inside a packed courthouse, Darrow asked the all-white jurors again to set their prejudices aside and put themselves in the shoes of the Sweet family. He attacked the prosecution's case for eight hours, asking jurors to understand the defendant's plight and the history behind it. After jury instructions of more than two hours, the jury came back with a verdict of not guilty in three hours; no further cases were tried.

The case was a notable victory for the family, the NAACP and Darrow, and reflected on issues of race and justice in 1925 that are still with us today. Racial covenants were not struck down until 1948, and de facto segregated communities have left their legacy across urban and suburban American landscapes. Self-defense doctrines have come back into the spotlight more recently in broader debates over lethal force used by police and private citizens, particularly when victims are minorities. In all of these, the problems of racial injustice that we still struggle with, and must continue to struggle with for a more equitable future, have come directly back to the foreground.

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections  

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