Title

Melting Hearts of Stone: Clarence Darrow and the Sweet Trials

Document Type

Article

Abstract

Detroit seemed to Dr. Ossian Sweet a good place to launch a medical practice in 1921. Ossian Sweet understood racial violence all too well. Growing up in Orlando, Ossian had witnessed a large crowd of whites running a black boy down a dusty road. Seeing racial hatred in its ugliest forms instilled in Sweet a deep race consciousness and determination not to let bigotry prevent him from achieving his own personal goals. He decided to move into his new home at 2905 Garland, whatever the risks to him and his family.

Clarence Darrow associated with many causes over his long career, but the most constant of all was that of black Americans. From his early identification with the sacred cause of abolition to his charitable support of the NAACP, Darrow always stood out as one of the Negro's best white friends.

On the evening of September 9, with the occupants of the Sweet house huddled together a crowd gathered, then increased, stones came through the window and shots came from the house and two members of the crowd lay on the ground wounded, one mortally. After presenting his seventy witnesses, the Prosecutor would tell the jury that the case was simple: Leon Breiner, peacefully chatting with his neighbor at his doorstep enjoying his God-given and inalienable right to live, is shot through the back from ambush. You can't make anything out of these facts but cold-blooded murder.... Darrow wanted the Sweet trial to be about more than the events of one night in Detroit. He wanted the trial to be about a history of black suffering in America. Clarence Darrow wanted the jury to understand the fear felt inside 2905 Garland on the night of September 9. Through a series of defense witnesses, Darrow presented a very different version of the scene.

This essay details the trial that resulted first in a hung jury and mistrial. After the second trial resulted in a verdict of not guilty Darrow told the press, "The verdict meant simply that the doctrine that a man's house is his castle applied to the black man as well as the white man. If not the first time that a white jury had vindicated this principle, it was the first time that ever came to my notice."

Publication Date

2008

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