Everlasting Problems

With the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer charged with the murder of George Floyd, and the shooting death of Dante Wright just blocks from where Floyd died, racial injustice has raised its ugly head again. Police are charged with protecting people, not placing their knee on a suspect’s neck until he is dead.

Statista Research, a data research organization, reports that “the trend of fatal police shootings in the United States seems to only be increasing, with a total 213 civilians having been shot, 30 of whom were Black, in the first three months of 2021.”

Racial injustice remains largely dormant until it erupts into the public consciousness whenever incidents like Floyd and Wright occur leading to outcries for change, but meaningful change remains questionable at best.

However, in 1925, another incident involving a black man gained national attention.

Dr. Ossian Sweet, a Black physician in Detroit Michigan, was arrested and charged with murder along with his wife and 9 friends after they used weapons to defend themselves against an angry white mob outside the doctor’s home. Protestors shouted taunts at Sweet and his wife who had recently moved into an all-white neighborhood. Stones were thrown breaking windows and shots were fired from inside Sweet’s home to repel the attack leading to the death of one white man and wounding another.

In preparing for the trial, the NAACP hired the brilliant defense attorney Clarence Darrow for all 11 defendants. In his summation, Darrow got to the heart of the issue with words that easily apply today.

“This case has taken a good deal of your time… and I am certain that every one of you know how important it is. There are many reasons why it is important. In the first place, eleven people are on trial charged with a crime which might involve imprisonment for life… In the next place, back of it all hanging over all of it and overshadowing it is the everlasting problems of race and color and creed that have always worked their evil in human institutions. …

“Here are eleven people, which is about as many as there are on this jury, on trial for killing a white man. …

“Reverse this: Supposing one of you were charged with murder and you had shot and killed somebody, while they were gathered around your home, and the mob had been a black mob and you lived in a black man’s land and you had killed a black and you had to be tried by twelve blacks, what would you think about it? What would you think about it? …

“Do you suppose I would win this case, gentlemen, if I had twelve colored people? I think I would. Is that because they are better or because they are worse than you? Not at all. Suppose I had twelve of the most intelligent and honorable colored people in the world in this jury box – and you all know that there are many intelligent and honorable colored people, I don’t need to talk that to you, none of you are that prejudiced–do you think I would have any worry over this case? …

“Gentlemen, these are intelligent defendants… They are students, scholars, and ambitious to rise in the world. …

“For two nights this crowd was around the house. I don’t care whether it was big or little, it was there, it was menacing Sweet and his brood and his home. … The evidence is so plain that there is not any human being that can doubt it… You know it is true. You know the purpose of this crowd. It was a disorderly crowd. No, peaceable, quiet! They were throwing stones; they were breaking windows. …

“Gentlemen, let me ask you to be honest with us and be honest in this case, and that is all I ask. Suppose one of you had a home with a little family, and outside was a menacing crowd of black people that wanted to drive you out, as you know they wanted to drive these people out. Would you have waited as long as they did? No, you would not, gentlemen. You have not been taught to wait. You have been taught to act.

“You would have fought your way out, no matter what the consequences…

“They were a mob… and a mob is a criminal organization. And why? Because one man alone may be comparatively harmless, but when a crowd comes together… It is like starting a prairie fire… and it spreads, and spreads and spreads and the winds fan it, and the flame makes the wind, and finally the two together, spreading and spreading, will pass all obstacles and devour everything in its way. …

“…the law has always provided in every civilized community that an assemblage of people, even of small numbers, for an evil purpose, with an illegal purpose, may use some threats and some force, like the throwing of stones or the breaking of glass — that a mob of this sort is a criminal organization. …

“Let me ask you gentlemen to put yourselves in the places of Dr. Sweet and his comrades, when you decide this case… Put yourselves in that house on the corner, with a black skin and a white mob in front of you, that has been there for one purpose for two days and two nights.

“Gentlemen, you twelve whites, with such intellects as have been given you, with such prejudices as have been forced upon you, with such sympathies as you have, and with such judgment as I can urge upon you, I ask you to understand my clients, and I ask in the name of the race, in the name of the past and the hope of the future, in justice to black and white alike, that you shall render a verdict of not guilty in this case.”

After the logic and eloquence of Darrow, most members of the jury agreed that the eight defendants be acquitted. However, there were holdouts. A mistrial was declared, and the defendants were tried separately. After Sweet’s brother, Henry, had been acquitted, the prosecutor dismissed the case in the remaining seven believing he could not secure a conviction.

Darrow’s “hope for the future” is ongoing.

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