We’ve moved!
Visit the new Library of America blog at our new website: www.loa.org/news-and-views

Thursday, June 23, 2011

James Weldon Johnson hires Clarence Darrow for the landmark 1925 Sweet murder trial

“What most Americans know about [Clarence] Darrow,” Bruce DeSilva wrote recently on The Nervous Breakdown,
comes from Spencer Tracy’s heroic portrayal in Stanley Kramer’s 1960 movie Inherit the Wind, although Darrow’s name was changed to Henry Drummond in the script. Many also know the legendary lawyer from Orson Welles’ equally heroic portrayal in Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion the previous year, although again Darrow’s name was changed, this time to Jonathan Wilk.
John A. Farrell's acclaimed new biography Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned should help fix that. He draws on papers unavailable to previous biographers to offer vivid recreations of Darrow’s most famous cases—the Leopold and Loeb murders, the Scopes Trial, and the trial of the Scottsboro Boys. One of Darrow’s most dramatic defenses came immediately after the Scopes Trial in 1925 when he defended Dr. Ossian Sweet, his two brothers, and eight of their friends who were all charged with first-degree murder for killing a member of a mob that tried to drive them from Dr. Sweet’s new home in a white Detroit neighborhood.

James Weldon Johnson, who in 1920 had become the first black secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), hoped to make the Sweets case a landmark civil rights trial and hired Darrow and his Scopes colleague Nathan Garfield Hays as attorneys for the eleven defendants.

Farrell summarizes the issues in the case:
The sturdy old saw “a man’s home is his castle” reflected the belief that an individual may use deadly force when defending himself, his family, or his home. So two questions ruled the case: Did Negroes have the same right of self-defense as white people? And if so, had the Sweet defendants been truly threatened?
The jury trial turned on Darrow’s ability, on cross-examination, to expose as perjury the testimony of the prosecution’s witnesses that “only a dozen” people had assembled before the house:
    “When you first started to answer the question . . . you started to say you saw a great crowd there, didn’t you? Darrow asked one witness.
    “Yes, sir.”
    “Then you modified to say a large crowd, didn’t you?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “Then you said a few people . . .”
    “Yes, sir.”
    [The witness] had been coached by the police, Darrow said, and instructed to testify that only a few people had gathered. Wasn’t that so?
    “Yes, sir,” the man, now thoroughly miserable, admitted.
    Afterwards, Robert Toms [the prosecuting attorney] conceded that the witnesses were inferior—in terms of education, intellect, aplomb, and appearance—to the Negro defendants.
The first trial ended with a hung jury. Five months later the state opted to retry the defendants separately and began with Henry Sweet, the doctor’s youngest brother, who had admitted under questioning by the police to firing shots from the house. Johnson attended this trial and recounted in Along This Way his experience hearing sixty-eight-year-old Darrow present his closing arguments, and then the verdict:
He talked for nearly seven hours. I sat where I could catch every word and every expression of his face. It was a wonderful performance. Clarence Darrow, the veteran criminal lawyer, the psychologist, the philosopher, the humanist, the apostle of liberty, was bringing into play every bit of skill, drawing on all the knowledge, and using every power that he possessed upon the twelve men who sat in front of him. At times his voice was as low as though he was coaxing a child. At such times, the strain upon the listeners to catch his words made them appear rigid. At other times his words came like flashes of lightning and crashes of thunder. He closed his argument with a plea that left no eyes dry. I walked over to him to express my appreciation and thanks. His eyes were wet. He placed his hands on my shoulders. I tried to stammer out a few words, but broke down and wept. The jury brought in a verdict of “Not guilty,” and the Association had won another victory in its fight to maintain the common rights of citizenship for the Negro.
The case became a milestone: a black defendant had been acquitted in a murder trial by an all-white jury, and, as Darrow told the press afterwards, “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.” Farrell describes its importance to the NAACP:
The case was a huge victory for the NAACP. The publicity it garnered and the money it raised from black and liberal donors in 1925 and 1926 helped cement the organization’s position as America’s leading civil rights group, and allowed it to build the superb legal defense team that, over thirty years of litigation, would persuade the federal courts that separate was not equal.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: James Weldon Johnson: Writings (includes Along This Way); H. L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series (2 books — includes several pieces related to the Scopes Trial)

1 comment:

  1. Great story and excellent selection of quotations. Many thanks, LOA!


Wikio - Top Blogs - Literature