National Book Award Winner Kevin Boyle describes himself
as an “archives rat” — and that’s a good thing for a historian and the
author of the award-winning “Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil
Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age.” It’s a gripping look at the 1925
murder in Detroit of a white man by a black man and the ensuing trial
that garnered national attention and helped set the stage for the
nascent civil rights movement.
Boyle, who will visit Lansing as part of Michigan’s Great
Read program on Oct. 25, will be just a few blocks from the State of
Michigan Archives where he did some important research. “Arc” won the
National Book Award in 2004 for non-fiction.
The author said he will tell the audience about some of the interesting finds he made on his way to writing the book.
“Arc” is the story of Detroit physician Ossian
(pronounced ocean) Sweet and his family, who set off a cascade of
events when they became some of the first blacks to move into an
all-white Detroit neighborhood in 1925. The times were tense as the
city faced an influx of Southern blacks moving to Detroit as part of
the “great migration.”
When a mob of protesters pelted the Sweet home with
stones, someone from inside the home fired shots into the crowd,
killing one man and wounding another. Sweet and 10 of his family and
friends were arrested on suspicion of murder.
Boyle — who was raised in Detroit, studied at University
of Detroit and University of Michigan and teaches at Ohio State
University — is more than an historian. He is a great storyteller who
can mesmerize you with the nuanced retelling of a trial whose outcome
can be easily found on Wikipedia. “Guilty” or “not guilty” becomes
His research is impeccable, likely due to his studying
under the legendary U-M history Professor Sydney Fine, who wrote the
seminal history of the Detroit Riots. “Violence in the Model City.” and
a three-volume history of one of Michigan’s most illustrious public
figures, Gov. Frank Murphy.
During his graduate studies with Fine, a little of Frank
Murphy’s history may have rubbed off on Boyle. Murphy was the presiding
judge at the Sweet Trial and would go on to become governor of Michigan
and an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.
The trial, the dynamic and bustling city, the menacing
presence of the Ku Klux Klan and the issues of race alone would make
the murder worthy of a book, but when crusading attorney Clarence
Darrow entered the case he elevated the trial to national attention.
Darrow had already made a name for himself in the infamous Scopes
Monkey Trial and numerous other high-profile cases typically involving
the rights of the underdog.
“He gave enormous life to the story,” Boyle said. “He
doesn’t show up in the book until chapter eight, and then the book
really takes off.”
Boyle said the flamboyant Darrow was a “mess of contradiction,” showing the complexity of human life.
“He liked to get people pissed. He liked to poke people with a sharpened stick, and if he got it in the eye, all the better.”
Darrow, as the book shows, pokes plenty of sharp sticks at institutionalized racism while in Detroit defending Sweet.
“Arc” is a book that is more than just about a landmark
trial. In Boyle’s deft hands it becomes the retelling of the first
sparks of segregation and the separate-but-unequal divisions that
continue in our communities.
Boyle believes that America and race
relations have come far since the Sweet trial, but he offers the caveat
that segregation by location is still in place. “One enduring form of
segregation is housing. Our American cities and suburbs are deeply
Boyle writes in the discussion guide: “I
like to think that Sweet’s story makes us look around us — and wonder
why we continue to accept such injustice.”
That the Michigan Humanities
Council selected “Arc” for the Great Read Program (full disclosure: The
author of this article served on the selection committee) was an
unusual decision since race is not something that Americans are
comfortable talking about.
The idea of a statewide reading program is to get people
talking. Boyle is making six stops (Alpena, Marquette, Grand Rapids,
Flint, Detroit and Lansing).
In his book, Boyle indirectly makes the case for the
importance of preserving history. While researching the Sweet family in
the National Archives, he was able to trace them to their slave
ancestors. In Lansing, he uncovered details about Sweet’s marriage and
his medical licensing; playing history detective, he was able to
recover some records that were thought long lost.
geeks that in itself is an interesting story. Boyle wanted the police
records from the night of the murder and the arrest of the Sweet
contingent, but learned they had been thrown out.
While interviewing Michigan playwright Arthur Beer, who
wrote “Malice Aforethought” on the Sweet trial for the Michigan
Sesquicentennial in 1987, Boyle discovered that Beer had copied some
police records. Beer, who had stored them in his basement, recovered
them and mailed them to Boyle. Inside were the complete interrogation
transcripts of the alleged murderers.
Boyle said these primary records, which were from
conversations only two or three hours after the killing, allowed “all
11 of them (arrestees) to become real people.You can’t top that
experience — they give the book a lot more experience.”
What Boyle calls luck was actually the dogged efforts of
a trained historian, who learned from the best: Sydney Fine. Fine’s
legacy, Boyle said was “getting it right.”
Finally, Boyle said, he wrote the book for his father,
who reviewed the book as Boyle was writing it. He describes his father
as a great reader but not an academic man.
“It sounds hokey but true,” Boyle said; he pictured his
father reading before bedtime, getting ready to turn off the light, but
saying to himself, “I’ve got to finish this first.”
Whether it was Fine, Boyle or his father who spurred the
effort, “Arc” pulls you into the compelling story and leaves you
pondering a question about race in America and where we stand today.
Part of Michigan’s Great Read Program
6 p.m. Oct. 25 Cooley Law School, 300 S. Capitol Ave.