Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Defense of Dr. Ossian Sweet by Clarence Darrow

NAACP Mobilizes

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was not an inconsequential organization in 1925. It was actively facing the challenges of Jim Crow in the South, unfair housing practices in the North, and the consequences of terrible race riots in cities such as Tulsa, St. Louis, and Washington. For all of its meager resources, it mobilized local chapters across the nation, and supported the dozens of black-owned newspapers that eked out their precarious existences in the large urban areas of the United States.

It was led by the remarkable James Weldon Johnson composer, author, and social activist. He was assisted by the shrewd Walter White. In their modest central office in New York City, they monitored newspaper reports of racial injustices, looking for those instances that deserved to have wrongs righted, as well as vehicles for fund-raising.

The wire service article that appeared on Johnson's desk on the morning of Sept. 10, 1925, was of particular interest to him. Apparently, here was a case of a man defending his right to live in a white neighborhood, in a city teeming with the presence of the Ku Klux Klan. Not just any city, but a northern industrial city, Detroit. And not just any man, but a professional, a doctor. Contrasted with the earlier case of just a few months before, that of Dr. Turner, a man driven from his home without ever having lived in it, the case of Dr. Ossian Sweet had the sort of heroism and drama that the NAACP needed to mobilize its case against restrictive housing practices.

Johnson and White knew that the defense of Dr. Sweet would require a superior legal team, led by the very best lawyer they could find. Naturally, they both thought of the same individual: Clarence Darrow, fresh from his pyrrhic victory in the Dayton, Tennessee Monkey Trial. Luckily, the two men knew that Darrow happened to be visiting New York at that very moment, and luckier still, Johnson knew the almost equally famous lawyer Arthur Garfield Hays, whom Darrow was visiting.

Arthur Garfield Hays
Arthur Garfield Hays