Book Review of “Arc of Justice” by Kevin Boyle

Posted: February 26, 2017 in Book Reviews
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Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz AgeArc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin G. Boyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The heart of this story is about a first-generation free black man who, through the sacrifices of his parents, was able to become a physician took place in 1920’s Detroit, but it could be taking place right now in 2017 anywhere in America as a new wave of virulent racism, prejudice, and white supremacy sweeps this nation under the alt right rhetoric and “alternative facts” of a new generation of ignorant and fear-mongering groups, who are strongly reminiscent of the KKK and its subsidiaries that swept the country in the 1920’s.

For those of us who have studied history deeply beyond the highly-sanitized history textbooks of our K-12 and college years, this story is one more example of the deeply-embedded racial prejudice and murderous hate that has permeated the United States from its origins.

How many people know about Birth of A Nation, the 1915 movie by D.W. Griffith that glorified the rise of the Ku Klux Klan? How many people have seen it?

It was this movie that in large part contributed to the explosion of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and its subsidiary groups in the 1920’s. African Americans, embodied by Nat Turner in the movie, were portrayed as a threat to white America and its way of life. Birth of a Nation, playing on ignorance and fear, implicitly told white American to counter this perceived threat with action: violent and death.

And that is exactly what happened. In the South, gruesome and horrific white mob violence against African-Americans was a way of life. Burning people alive. Lynchings. Brutal murders of all sorts.

It didn’t matter whether the victims were guilty or not because there were no trials. All it took was a rumor, a hint, a suggestion, and the victims’ fates were sealed.

Always at night, though. In hoods and sheets. A bunch of ignorant, fearful, evil, white, cowardly men hiding behind the cover of darkness to commit these atrocities against their fellow human beings.

The KKK spread its poisonous and fatal gospel of hate and death northward and it infiltrated the midwest and the northwest parts of the United States. It was alive and well in the 1920’s in Detroit, MI, where Ossian Sweet set up his medical practice after graduating from Howard University.

As the KKK propaganda spread throughout this city, walls, both visible and invisible, started being erected to keep African-Americans “where they belonged,” according the Detroit’s white population, in terms of where they could live.

Real estate agents hastily wrote exclusionary covenants for Detroit’s neightborhoods and often joined forces with the KKK subsidiaries that sprang up all over the city promoting fear among Detroit’s working class and advocating violence and death if African-Americans dared threaten their very existences by moving into their neighborhoods.

Ossian Sweet made the mistake a buying a home in one of those white working-class neighborhoods.

“Arc of Justice” tells that story. It is not a pretty one. But it’s one we should all be aware of, especially now in a time that is eerily similar to the one in which he lived.

View all my reviews

  1. Martha Peeples says:

    Clear and insightful review of a book that deals with yet another horrific period in our nation’s history, a period that has yet to play itself out.Thanks — can’t wait to read.


  2. […] throughout the country in the 1920’s and 1930’s in places as diverse as Monroe, NC and Detroit, MI) to go where they want to go and do what they want to […]


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