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

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Then Darrow took over. His argument was deceptively simple. “Our theory is self-defense and we claim the law to be that one is justified in defending himself when he apprehends that his life is in danger and when that apprehension is based upon reason.” But the reasonable man is not a fiction, Darrow pointed out. He is a man with a background, with a color, with the color with which he has been endowed. The question is not what a white man in a city of whites would do under certain circumstances. The question is what a colored man, a reasonable colored man, with his knowledge of the prejudice against him because of his color … with his knowledge that there was a society of men (a so-called Improvement Association) formed for the purpose of ejecting him from his home; with his knowledge of what mobs do and have done to colored people when they have the power.…

To show why and how Ossian Sweet thought as a colored man, Darrow told the jury the story of his client’s unusual life and brilliant career. The son of a Florida minister and the grandson of an Alabama slave, Sweet left home at fourteen to work his way through Wilberforce Academy in Ohio and Howard University Medical School in Washington. After practicing medicine for several years in Detroit and marrying Gladys Mitchell, he went abroad to study gynecology and pediatrics in Vienna and in Paris, where he worked at the Curie Institute under Madame Curie herself. Returning to Detroit, Dr. and Mrs. Sweet, now the parents of a little girl, began looking for a home. They selected the house on the corner of Garland and Charlevoix, which was owned by a white woman named Smith who was married to a very light-skinned Negro.

Now, Darrow reminded the jury, during the summer before Dr. Sweet moved into his house Detroit had been rocked by a series of racial incidents. Another highly respected Negro doctor who bought a house in a nearby white district had been driven into the streets by a rampaging mob. At least six similar incidents had occurred within a few weeks, forcing the mayor to issue a proclamation begging the public to avoid “a lasting stain on the reputation of Detroit as a law-abiding community.” At the same time, the city’s Negroes were seething over the fact that in the previous twenty-two months fifty-five black men had been killed by the police.

With this for background, Darrow put Ossian Sweet on the stand in his own defense and asked him to describe what had happened on the fateful night.

“When did you first observe anything outside?”

“We were playing cards. It was about eight o’clock when something hit the roof of the house.”

“What happened after that?”

“Somebody went to the window and I heard them remark, ‘People, the people.’”

“And then?”

“I ran out to the kitchen where my wife was. There were several lights burning. I turned them out and opened the door. I heard someone yell, ‘Go and raise hell in front; I am going back.’ Frightened, and after getting a gun, I ran upstairs, stones were hitting the house intermittently. I threw myself on the bed and lay there a short while—perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes, when a stone came through a window. Part of the glass hit me.”

“What happened next?” Darrow asked.

“Pandemonium—I guess that’s the best way to describe it—broke loose. Everyone was running from room to room. There was a general uproar. Somebody yelled, ‘There’s someone coming.’ They said, ‘That’s your brother.’ A car pulled up to the curb. My brother and Mr. Davis got out. The mob yelled, ‘Here’s niggers, get them! Get them!’ As they rushed in, a mob surged forward, fifteen or twenty feet. It looked like a human sea. Stones kept coming faster. I was downstairs. Another window was smashed. Then one shot, then eight or ten from upstairs. Then it was all over.”

Slowly, quietly, with deep sympathy in his resonant voice, Darrow now asked the crucial question of the trial. “What was your state of mind at the time of the shooting?”

“When I opened the door and saw the mob,” Sweet replied, “I realized I was facing the same mob that had hounded my people through its entire history. In my mind I was pretty confident of what I was up against. I had my back against the wall. I was filled with a peculiar fear, the fear of one who knows the history of my race. I knew what mobs had done to my people before.”

Darrow asked Sweet if he could tell the jury what he meant by that last sentence, and the doctor proceeded to recite the grisly tale of recent Ku Klux Klan-inspired race riots in both the North and the South. In East St. Eouis, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, Negroes had been shot and beaten by white mobs. In Arkansas, four brothers named Johnson—one a physician like Ossian, another a dentist like Otis—had been dragged from a train and murdered. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Dr. A. C. Jackson, called by the Mayo brothers the foremost Negro surgeon in the country, had accepted a police guarantee of protection when a mob attacked his home. He had surrendered his weapons; five minutes later he was dead. In Texas, Henry Lowrie surrendered himself under a similar promise of safe conduct. The police let a mob drag him from a train and burn him at the stake. It was these victims and many others—Dr. Sweet declared that almost 3,000 Negroes had been lynched in the last generation—that Sweet had been thinking about on the night of September 9 in his house on Charlevoix Avenue.