- Historic Sites
Verdicts of History: VI “Take The Hatred Away, and You Have Nothing Left”
December 1968 | Volume 20, Issue 1
But a committee from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had called on Darrow in New York, where he was visiting his friend and fellow attorney Arthur Garfield Hays, chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union; the committee convinced Darrow that the Sweet case was as important to Negro freedom as Scopes’s had been to academic freedom. The N.A.A.C.P. had been fighting hard on the legal front for more than a decade against white attempts to contain Negroes in ghettos. In 1917 the United States Supreme Court had ruled that municipal ordinances enforcing segregation were unconstitutional, and now the N.A.A.C.P. was deeply involved in contesting the legality of property holders’ convenants prohibiting the sale of homes to Negroes. To the N.A.A.C.P. the Sweet case represented another and more dangerous segregationist technique—mob violence.
Behind this N.A.A.C.P. move to engage Darrow was a bitter argument between Walter White, the organization’s assistant secretary, who had rushed to Detroit to investigate the case, and the Negro lawyers already retained. In his report White passed harsh judgments on two of the three, calling Julian Perry “a man of no personality” and Cecil Rowlette “a blustering, noisy, pompous individual with a very inflated opinion of his own ability.” Rowlette had angrily protested the idea of hiring outsiders, arguing that a white lawyer would hurt rather than help. Finally he threatened to walk out if a white lawyer was hired. Walter White calmly pointed out that a prominent white lawyer was the Sweets’s only hope of gaining “the best white sentiment” of Detroit, which was at present totally alienated because most people felt the killing was unwarranted. In a letter written the following day, September 17, White added an even more ominous note: “There is sentiment even among colored people that the firing began too soon. If they had waited fifteen or twenty minutes until the attack on the house had reached its full fury there would have been little to the case. But we’ve got to see it through. …”
There was ample reason for Arthur Garfield Hays to bring the Civil Liberties Union into the case as well, and on October 12, he and Darrow arrived in Detroit to interview their new clients. By this time the case was on the docket at Recorder’s Court. The presiding judge was Frank Murphy—future governor of Michigan and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court—a handsome, thirty-five-year-old Irish-American who had been elected two years earlier on a nonpartisan ticket by one of the largest majorities ever cast for a judge in Detroit. Murphy had assigned the case to himself because, he told a friend, “everyjudge on this bench is afraid to touch [it.] They think it’s dynamite. They don’t realize that this is the opportunity of a lifetime to demonstrate sincere liberalism and judicial integrity at a time when liberalism is coming into its own.” Murphy’s first act when the case reached his jurisdiction was to release Gladys Sweet on bail. Even this gesture, Hays said, “aroused the fury of the community.”
Hays remembered the first meeting with their clients: We were ushered into a small room, dimly lighted by a dirty window, furnished with a table and a few broken chairs. Our clients were summoned. They seemed cheered by our visit but not hopeful. They had spent sixty summer days in a dingy city jail; and Negroes in Detroit involved in a killing have reason to be pessimistic. On the face of it our case was not strong. It seemed clear that Breiner had been shot by the fusillade from that house.
To make matters worse, the attitude of the eleven defendants was not very helpful, from a lawyer’s point of view. They had what Hays called “a very human desire” to support the “original and inept stories” they had given the police when they were first arrested. One man stubbornly maintained that he had been taking a bath when the shots were fired. Another was frankly proud of the whole episode: It had taught the whites a lesson, hadn’t it? Most difficult of all was getting anyone to admit that those inside the house had been frightened. “They had become heroes in the eyes of their race,” Hays said. “Not all of them cared to admit they had been scared.” It took a great deal of argument to convince them that their defense depended almost entirely upon their state of mind at the time of the shooting.
Judge Murphy had granted Darrow two extra weeks to prepare his defense. The lawyer undoubtedly read closely the hundred pages of testimony taken during the pretrial examinations conducted in mid-September under Murphy’s supervision. Under angry cross-examination from the three Negro attorneys, police and civilian witnesses had stubbornly insisted that Charlevoix Avenue had been quiet on the night of September 9, and that there had been no provocation whatsoever for the Sweets suddenly to blaze away with guns. Finding witnesses to rebut this proved almost impossible.
The trial began on October 30. The courtroom was divided into two unequal parts, with space in the smaller half for two to three hundred spectators. The larger half was the well of the court, with the judge’s bench and witness box against the marble wainscoted rear wall. On the left was the prisoners’ bench, where the eleven Negroes sat awaiting judgment. Ossian Sweet, the leader of the group, was a handsome, dark-skinned man with a small black mustache. His slender, twenty-four-year-old wife was so light in color that she had grown up in an all-white neighborhood in Detroit without experiencing an iota of prejudice. She wore her thick dark hair parted in the middle and coiled loosely at the back of her neck.