Although ready to retire, famed attorney Clarence Darrow rose to the challenge when asked to defend a black physician against a murder charge.
by John F. Wukovits
Ossian Sweet wasn’t looking for trouble when he went shopping in Detroit for a house for his young family in the spring of 1925. “He just wanted to bring up his girl in good surroundings,” his brother Otis later recalled. Sweet found what he wanted in a two-story bungalow at 2905 Garland Avenue, in a lower middle-class neighborhood of small businessmen and factory workers. But when Sweet, a black doctor with a thriving practice in the city, tried to move into his new home, his efforts triggered violent protest from white neighbors and led to two remarkable trials.
Racial tension was high in Detroit that year. Henry Ford’s introduction of the five-dollar-a-day wage in 1914 had spurred an exodus of poor, black Southerners to Detroit to build automobiles. When Ford raised his rate by a dollar in 1919 the migration increased; by the mid-1920s Detroit was home to the nation’s fastest-growing black community. Whites reacted with increasing alarm. The city police department was responsible for the deaths of roughly 50 blacks between 1923 and 1925. Meanwhile, the Ku Klux Klan, buttressed by a similar movement north of poor southern whites, became involved in city politics and fielded a candidate in the 1925 mayoral race.
It was in this setting that Ossian Sweet started a family and career. The grandson of an Alabama slave, Sweet worked his way through Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C., before opening a practice in Detroit in 1921. After marrying Gladys Mitchell the following year, Sweet treated his wife to a lengthy European honeymoon and studied in Vienna and in Paris under the renowned Madame Curie. Following the birth of a daughter, the Sweets returned to Detroit in 1924 and moved temporarily into the home of Mrs. Sweet’s mother.
Sweet could afford a decent home for his family, away from the cramped, unhealthy conditions of Detroit’s “Paradise Valley.” Where he had witnessed race-related violence in his Florida home town and in Washington, Sweet did not initially anticipate trouble. His mother-in-law had lived peacefully in a partially integrated area for many years, and the owners of the house on Garland Avenue–the Smiths–were a white woman and a black man. Mr. Smith, however, was apparently so light-skinned that his neighbors never realized he was black.
Sweet soon saw signs of trouble. First the Smiths received threatening warnings not to sell their house to a black family. In July, a local group called the Waterworks Improvement Association was formed to “render constructive social and civic service” to the neighborhood. The innocent-sounding name hid the group’s real purpose, which was to keep the area free of blacks.
Other incidents that summer illustrated the increase in racial tension in the city. Another black physician named A.L. Turner was greeted by loud demonstrations when he moved into an all-white neighborhood. The police responded by directing that area’s “improvement association” to deliver Turner’s furniture back to his old house. Meanwhile, a crowd of angry whites pelted the home of a black waiter named John Fletcher with lumps of coal. Gunfire erupted from within the house, wounding a white teenager. Fletcher was arrested, but the charges were later dropped.
Resolving to “die a man or live a coward,” Sweet informed the Detroit police department that he would move into his new home on September 8. He was not reassured by the department’s reluctant promise to protect his rights, and asked his brothers, Henry and Otis, and several of their friends to stay with him for a few days. He left his young daughter in the care of Gladys’ mother for the time being. Among the items Sweet brought with him for the move were nine guns and a stockpile of ammunition.
Four policemen looked on as the Sweets carried furniture into their house on September 8. That night, the Sweets and their friends waited anxiously by the windows, armed and ready to defend the house. The crowd gathering across the street was content to shout threats and taunts. The next morning, however, Ossian received word that the crowd had decided that “they are going to get you out of here tonight.” Sweet asked three more friends to spend the night, and by evening the mood of the crowd had turned markedly sour. The small police contingent had doubled in size, but did nothing when the crowd began hurling stones at the house.
Heavy traffic clogged the street outside Sweet’s house as the men inside watched the growing crowd. Around 8:15 P.M., a taxi carrying Otis Sweet and a friend nudged through the gathering, and when the passengers stepped out they had to rush to the house amidst a torrent of rocks and cries of “Get them! Get them!” The raucous mob closed in on the house. Suddenly, gunfire erupted from inside. Across the street, two men fell with bullet wounds, one of whom–Leon Breiner–later died.
Inspector Norton N. Schuknecht rushed into the house and demanded “What in hell are you fellows shooting about?” Sweet countered that he was just protecting his home, and that there would be no more shooting. Schuknecht departed, not realizing that two white men had been shot. Shortly afterward, however, he returned with several other officers and arrested Sweet and his 10 companions, including his wife, on charges of first-degree murder.
For two days the police kept defense lawyers from conferring with their clients, and the confused defendants told contradictory stories about what had happened. Meanwhile, the police officers claimed that there had been no crowd or violence sufficient to justify the shooting. In light of the inflammatory state of racial feelings in the city, the assistant prosecutor argued against bail for any of the defendants, and all were sent to the Wayne County jail.
The National Association for the Advancement of Color People (NAACP) quickly rallied to Sweet’s defense. Convinced that only a prominent white lawyer could elicit sympathy from white citizens, the group sought the aid of renowned defense attorney Clarence Darrow.
Darrow, 68, had long been a champion of unpopular causes. He had represented radical union leaders, saved a pair of killers from facing the death penalty, and had just recently defended Tennessee school teacher John Scopes, on trial for teaching evolution. Long a protector of individual rights, Darrow came from a family known for its sympathy toward blacks. His ancestors had supported the Underground Railroad, and Darrow often spoke in black churches, contending that “When it comes to human beings, I am color blind; to me people are not simply white or black; they are all freckled.”
Darrow, however, was exhausted. The laborious Scopes “Monkey” Trial, in which he had battled head to head with the formidable William Jennings Bryan, had weakened the aging warrior. Jennings, in fact, had died within days of the trial’s end. Darrow was tired of taking on cases “that required hard work and brought me into conflict with the crowd.” He was ready to retire.
Darrow knew from the start, however, that his sympathy for the Sweets’ plight would force him to accept the case. After NAACP Assistant Secretary Walter White explained its basic details, Darrow asked if the defendants had actually fired into the crowd. White hesitated, afraid the answer would cause Darrow to decline the case, but finally said yes. Darrow instantly accepted, adding that “If they had not had the courage to shoot back in defense of their own lives, I wouldn’t think they were worth defending.”
Darrow arrived in Detroit with his associate, Arthur Garfield Hays, on October 12. His first task was to convince the defendants that their state of mind during the shooting was crucial to their defense. Hays later stated that, because they were heroes to other blacks, “Not all of them cared to admit they had been scared.”
Court convened on October 30, and spectators packed the courtroom to watch America’s foremost defense attorney spar with District Attorney Robert F. Toms and his aggressive assistant, Lester S. Moll. Darrow’s assistants argued that Sweet could not receive a fair trial in Detroit and urged a change of venue, but Darrow rejected their advice. He had been impressed by the impartiality of the presiding judge, Frank Murphy. Darrow believed a good lawyer “should be able to tell something about a man by looking at his face,” and he liked what he saw in Murphy.
Darrow’s judgment proved sound. Murphy, who would later become governor of Michigan and an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, consciously strove to insure that any person who appeared before him–rich or poor, black or white–enjoyed the same rights. Darrow wrote after the trial that Murphy “proved to be the kindliest and most understanding man I have ever happened to meet on the bench. . . .”
Selecting an impartial jury proved difficult. Darrow questioned 150 potential jurors, attempting in the process to educate them in black history. He thought that if he could enlighten the 12 men chosen, his clients stood a chance. It took five weeks to choose the jury. “The case is won or lost now,” Darrow remarked to his associates. “The rest is window dressing.”
The state called 71 witnesses to support its assertion that the Sweets had “feloniously, willfully and of their malice aforethought” armed themselves with the intent to kill anyone threatening the house. Prosecuting attorneys said the shootings were unprovoked, that prejudice played no part in the drama, and that no unruly mob had assembled that night. Inspector Schuknecht testified that the neighborhood had been quiet and that he had told his men he would use “every man in the police station” to guard Sweet’s right to live in the home.
Darrow worked on crossword puzzles at the defense table while the prosecution laid out its case, but he was paying close attention to the proceedings. Noticing that whites dominated the large courtroom crowds, he told Judge Murphy that a larger percentage of blacks should be witnesses to a trial that meant so much to the black population. Murphy agreed. As the trial progressed, more and more blacks filled the courtroom.
Darrow appeared relaxed during cross-examination but he managed to pry a few crucial statements from the prosecution’s witnesses. Police admitted that traffic outside Sweet’s home was so congested that two men had been assigned to direct it. Each time a witness described the crowd as being no more than 25 or 30 people, Darrow pointedly asked why he had been in the neighborhood. After hearing the same response from almost every witness–that they were “curious”–Darrow sarcastically mused how odd it was that so many whites had been curious at the same time about a black family.
In a significant breakthrough for the defense, two teenage boys indicated that the crowd had indeed posed a threat to the Sweets. Urlic Arthur testified that he had watched four or five youths hurl rocks at the Sweet house. When Darrow quizzed Dwight Hubbard, about the crowd’s size, the boy answered, “There was a great crowd–no, I won’t say a great crowd, a large crowd–well, there were a few people there and the officers were keeping them moving.” Darrow jumped on this confusion and asked if Hubbard had talked to anyone about the case. The boy admitted that he had forgotten to characterize the crowd as “a few people,” as he had been coached to do.
There had been few emotional outbursts at the trial so far. Prosecutor Toms made a point to be pleasant to Darrow, trying to prevent his opponent from erupting in one of his famed courtroom speeches. Hoping for the battle to heat up, though, a frustrated Darrow complained, “God damn it, Toms, I can’t get going. I am supposed to be mad at you and I can’t even pretend that I am.”
The prosecution rested its case on November 14. Hays opened for the defense by citing PEOPLE v. AUGUSTUS POND, a landmark Michigan case from 1860. It had ruled that a man could employ any necessary method to defend his home, including homicide.
Darrow then went to work. He hammered home the point that his clients acted in self-defense and that “one is justified in defending himself when he apprehends that his life is in danger and when that apprehension is based upon reason.” Explaining that Michigan law defined a mob as 12 or more armed or 30 unarmed persons, Darrow contended that his clients had ample reason to fear the whites outside the Sweet home, especially when considered in light of recent events.
Philip A. Adler, a white reporter for the Detroit News, led the parade of defense witnesses. Adler had been in the area on the night of the shooting and estimated the crowd to be 400 to 500 people. After parking his car, he recalled, he had elbowed his way through the boisterous throng. Threats against those inside the house echoed about the neighborhood, and one person told Adler that a “Negro family has moved in here and we’re going to get them out.”
Darrow then called on three black witnesses who had driven together throughout the area. They compared the crowd, which had pelted their car with rocks, to “a mob of howling Indians.” Darrow’s star witness, however, was Ossian Sweet. Darrow intended to quietly ask his client a few simple questions, then allow him to occupy center stage.
According to Sweet, he and his friends were playing cards at about 8:00 p.m. when “something hit the roof of the house.” One of the men peered outside and saw people scurrying around the grounds, so Sweet dashed into the kitchen to check on his wife. While there he heard someone outside yell, “Go and raise hell in front; I am going back.” Rocks peppered the house and Sweet grabbed a gun and ran upstairs. “Pandemonium–I guess that’s the best way to describe it–broke loose,” he explained calmly. “Everyone was running from room to room. There was a general uproar.”
Sweet added that the crowd moved forward “like a human sea. Stones kept coming faster. . . . Another window was smashed. Then one shot, then eight or ten from upstairs, then it was all over.”
Darrow asked Sweet to describe his state of mind during the incident. Prosecutor Toms immediately jumped to his feet and objected that such material was irrelevant. Courtroom observers leaned forward in their seats, sensing that a crucial moment had arrived. Judge Murphy broke the tension by permitting the evidence on the grounds that such knowledge did have a bearing as to the defendants’ motives.
As blacks in the courtroom listened “with strained and anxious faces,” Sweet spoke of growing up outside Orlando, Florida, where black-owned homes were burned and black men were killed. He referred to four brothers in Arkansas who had been yanked from a train and murdered, and to a Texas man who surrendered to police to escape a threatening mob of whites, but was then turned over to that same mob and burned at the stake.
When he opened the door to let in his brother “and saw that mob,” said the soft-spoken physician, “I realized in a way that I was facing that same mob that had hounded my people through its entire history. I realized my back was against the wall and I was filled with a peculiar type of fear–the fear of one who knows the history of my race.”
In his closing argument on November 24, Moll labeled the shooting “a cowardly act” and declared that each defendant “took a hand in the killing of Breiner in cold blood.” Darrow then stepped forward. His voice “tense with emotion,” he argued that his clients were on trial for only one reason–the color of their skin. “If it had been a white man defending his home from a member of a Negro mob,” he declared, “no one would have been arrested nor put on trial.” He discounted the testimony of prosecution witnesses–“there is not an honest person in the whole bunch,” he said–and he castigated the police department for its ineffective control of what the prosecution refused to call a mob. “Gentlemen, the State has put on enough witnesses who said they were there, to make a mob.”
Darrow asked the jury to try to put themselves in the defendants’ position before they passed judgment on them. “The Sweets spent their first night in their new home afraid to go to bed,” he said. “The next night they spent in jail. Now the state wants them to spend the rest of their lives in the penitentiary.”
Finally, with many in the audience moved to tears, Darrow ended his powerful plea. “I speak to you not only in behalf of them, but in behalf of the millions of black faces who look to these 12 white faces for confidence and trust and hope in the institutions of our land. . . . I ask you in the name of the future to do justice in this case.” Judge Murphy could barely contain his emotions as Darrow returned to his chair. One lawyer later said he had heard “about lawyers making a judge cry but Darrow is the first man I actually saw do it.”
Though Toms was in the unenviable position of following Darrow, he delivered a strong closing statement. The jury’s responsibility, he noted, was not to solve the race issue but to determine who had killed Breiner, whose right to live was more important than Sweet’s “right to live where you please, in a certain house on a certain street.” Toms directed his final remarks to his opponents. “Back of all your sophistry and transparent political philosophy, gentlemen of the defense, back of all your prating of civil rights, back of your psychology and theory of race hatred, lies the stark body of Leon Breiner with a bullet hole in his back.”
Murphy instructed the jury to consider the defendants’ race and color, and the fact that a man’s home is his castle “whether he is white or black.” They should also ask themselves, he added, if they had reasonable cause to sense danger. If such a belief existed, he said, “the shooting would be justifiable and the defendants would be not guilty.”
Darrow believed these instructions had “scarcely left a chance for them to do anything but acquit,” but the jury thought otherwise. Deliberations lasted 46 hours and were punctuated by loud arguments. People outside the jury room sometimes heard angry voices shouting phrases such as “What’s the use of arguing with these fellows?”, “Two of you had these fellows convicted before you came in here,” and “I’ll stay here 20 years, if necessary, and I am younger than any of you.” In the end, they could not agree on a verdict and Murphy was forced to discharge them.
Toms immediately stated his intention to re-try the defendants. For the second trial Darrow switched tactics. Instead of defending all 11 at the same time, he would represent each one separately. The State chose first to prosecute Henry Sweet, who was the only one to admit firing his gun. Darrow was confident that if he could gain an acquittal for Henry, the other cases would crumble.
The second trial opened in April 1926. Testimony generally followed the same lines as the first trial, although Darrow learned from one state witness that at a meeting of the Waterworks Association, a representative from a similar neighborhood group had promoted violence to drive out the Sweets. Violence, he told the group, worked when they wanted to keep their street white.
Few people in any courtroom ever experienced anything similar to Darrow’s closing. Although exhausted by the two trials, Darrow delivered an epic eight-hour speech that captivated his audience. “One could have heard a pin drop in the crowded courtroom,” marveled one observer. “Sometimes his resonant, melodious voice sank to a whisper. Sometimes it rose in a roar of indignation.”
Darrow pulled few punches in characterizing Breiner as “a conspirator in as foul a conspiracy as was ever hatched in a community; in a conspiracy to drive from their homes a little family of black people.” He compared Breiner to ancient Romans who eagerly rushed to the Coliseum to watch lions mangle Christians. “He was there waiting to see these black men driven from their homes, and you know it; peacefully smoking his pipe, and as innocent a man as ever scuttled a ship.”
But the central issue was prejudice, which Darrow had fought all his life. Disagreeing with Moll’s statement that this was a murder case, not a question of race, Darrow countered, “I insist that there is nothing but prejudice in this case; that if it was reversed and eleven white men had shot and killed a black while protecting their home and their lives against a mob of blacks, nobody would have dreamed of having them indicted. . . . Now, that is the case, gentlemen, and that is all there is to this case. Take the hatred away, and you have nothing left.”
Finally, the emotionally drained Darrow tied up his summation. “I ask you, on behalf of this defendant, on behalf of these helpless ones who turn to you . . . . I ask you, in the name of progress and of the human race, to return a verdict of Not Guilty in this case!” Darrow apologized for the length of his remarks, and admitted “this case is close to my heart.”
Reaction in the courtroom almost equaled the speech in passion. Fighting tears, Murphy grasped a friend’s hand after the summation and claimed “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 NAACP so esteemed the summation that it reprinted the entire text for distribution. Even Darrow, who had delivered some of the finest courtroom speeches ever heard, called this “one of the strongest and most satisfactory arguments that I ever delivered.”
As the jury left the room to begin its deliberations, Darrow studied one juror who had shown little emotion one way or the other. “That is the most stubborn man I have ever run up against. I didn’t make any impression on him. His mind is made up, and I don’t think anything could have changed him. I wonder if he is for or against us.”
He quickly found out. Less than four hours later the jury returned with its verdict. Darrow tilted forward in his chair and stared at the floor while waiting for the decision. When he heard “Not Guilty,” he slumped so low that Toms feared he had fainted. Darrow quietly told his opponent, “Oh, I’m all right. I’ve heard that verdict before.” Darrow learned later that the juror who worried him had walked into the jury room, lit a cigar, opened a book, and told the rest not to bother him until they were ready to acquit Henry Sweet.
Tears streamed down the faces of Darrow and Henry Sweet. Toms appeared surprised with the verdict, while Mrs. Breiner angrily responded, “My husband was murdered and the murderers go free.” The NAACP hailed this decision as “one of the most important steps ever taken in the struggle for justice to the Negro in the United States.” Judge Murphy ended the trial by telling Henry Sweet, “I believe it is a just and reasonable verdict, and may God bless you.”
In July 1927, Murphy dismissed all charges against the other defendants. Though justice had triumphed in this case, tragedy haunted Ossian Sweet through his remaining days. For a number of years he lived in the home for which he had fought, but it harbored nothing but misery. His daughter and wife died of tuberculosis within two years of the landmark trial, and his brother Henry succumbed to the same disease in 1940. Ossian remarried twice and ran several times for public office, without success. On March 19, 1960, broken in health and spirit, Ossian Sweet took his own life.
John F. Wukovits is the author of Devotion to Duty: A Biography of Admiral Clifton Sprague.