Verdicts of History: VI “Take The Hatred Away, and You Have Nothing Left”


Deftly Darrow summed up Henry’s motives for going to the house of his brother. “[Ossian] had helped Henry through school. He loved him. He had taken him into his home. Henry had lived with him and his wife; he had fondled his baby. … Should this boy have gone along and helped his brother? Or should he have stayed away? What would you have done?”

Darrow paused; he could have ended here. But as one reporter wrote, “Some deep instinct warned him that he had not yet said quite all,” and he returned again to what he believed was the heart of the case: … the life of the Negro race has been a life of tragedy, of injustice, of oppression. The law has made him equal, but man has not. And, after all, the last analysis is, What has man done?—and not, What has the law done? I know there is a long road ahead of him, before he can take the place which I believe he should take. I know that before him there is suffering, sorrow, tribulation and death among the blacks and perhaps the whites. I am sorry. I would do what I could to avert it. I would advise patience; I would advise toleration; I would advise understanding; I would advise all of those things which are necessary for men who live together.

Gentlemen, what do you think is your duty in this case? I have watched day after day these black tense faces that have crowded this court. These black faces that now are looking to you twelve whites, feeling that the hopes and fears of a race are in your keeping.

This case is about to end, gentlemen. To them it is life. Not one of their color sits on this jury. Their fate is in the hands of twelve whites. Their eyes are fixed on you, their hearts go out to you, and their hopes hang on your verdict.

This is all. I ask you, on behalf of this defendant, on behalf of these helpless ones who turn to you, and more than that, —on behalf of this great state, and this great city which must face this problem, and face it fairly—I ask you in the name of progress and of the human race, to return a verdict of Not Guilty in this case!

A friend who met Judge Murphy inside the door of his chambers immediately after Darrow finished speaking said, “I had never seen [Murphy] so moved. He took my hand and said, ‘This is the greatest experience of my life. That was Clarence Darrow at his best. I will never hear anything like it again. He is the most Christlike man I have ever known.’”

The jury deliberated only three hours. As they filed in to give the verdict, another eyewitness described Darrow “seated with his hands grasping the arms of the chair, his great body stooped over, his head leaning forward.” When the foreman of the jury, in response to the Judge’s question, said, “Not guilty,” Darrow sank down in his chair, and Toms, afraid that his opponent was about to faint, stepped to his side. Darrow gave him a weary smile. “I’m all right,” he murmured to the District Attorney. “I’ve heard that verdict before.”

The state dropped the charges against the other defendants, and Dr. Ossian Sweet eventually moved into his house and lived there for a number of years. But the rest of his life was marked by a series of personal tragedies. His daughter died in childhood, and his wife succumbed to tuberculosis after a long struggle. On March 19, 1960, after years of ill health, Ossian Sweet was found dead, a bullet through his head and a revolver in his hand. Henry Sweet became a lawyer and practiced in Detroit until his death in 1940. Of the other principals, only Otis Sweet, the dentist, is still alive. Interviewed by Detroit news reporters on the fortieth anniversary of the case, Otis recalled his arrival by taxicab that evening. “The street was a sea of humanity,” he said. “The crowd was so thick you couldn’t see the street or the sidewalk. Just getting to the front door was like running the gantlet. I was hit by a rock before I got inside.”

The Sweet house still stands on the corner of Garland and Charlevoix. The neighborhood is still composed of middle-class families in similar houses on small, city-size plots. But now it is predominantly Negro. It was untouched by the rioting that burned down dozens of square blocks of Detroit in the summer of 1967. But Dr. Otis Sweet’s dental office on the second floor of 9300 Mack Avenue on the east side was destroyed when looters sacked and burned the shoe store on the street level.

In his final comment on the case, Clarence Darrow, in a more philosophic mood, wrote that he felt the white people who tried to drive the Sweets out of their home were not really responsible for their actions. They were only “a product of the bitterness bred through race prejudice.” To this he added a last sentence that rings with harsh reality for both white and black citizens in Detroit and the nation today. “As long as this feeling lives, tragedies will result.”