J. E. Kuhlman: Stand your ground in 1925


Dr. Ossian Sweet's brother, Sherman Sweet, at his families' grave sight in Bartow in 2004.

The Ledger
Published: Friday, August 2, 2013 at 12:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 2, 2013 at 12:09 p.m.

When you think of Dr. Ossian Sweet, a native of Bartow, you might consider “stand your ground,” black Americans and Clarence Darrow.

Darrow made the world sit up and take notice regarding racial rights in 1925. Of course, why it took this country until the 1960s to seriously confront racial issues after such, one is hard-pressed to explain

Note — Darrow was a quite round, (probably) philandering white man — a 68-year-old attorney content to rest on a lifetime of laurels. The NACCP approached him, asking, “Please help us.”

Well-respected black physician Dr. Ossian Sweet had purchased a home in Detroit and settled in for no more than two days when an angry mob descended on the new home he hoped to share with his wife and baby. It was a riot of rocks, broken windows and shouting. Friends and relatives were also in the house.

At some point, an individual from one of the upstairs bedrooms shot a gun out into the crowd. White man Leon Briener, watching from across the street at a neighbor's house, was killed. Detroit police swarmed the Sweet house and arrested all its black residents.

All house occupants were due to be tried for murder, but attorney Darrow requested one trial at a time. The first trial was for brother Henry Sweet. Henry was cleared based on cited landmark case of People v. Augustus Pond (1860). As a “stand your ground” principle, it held that individuals assaulted in their home can use whatever means necessary to defend their lives.

The pivotal question was whether Henry or any of the Sweets felt fear. Darrow's day-long summation dealt less with the cited landmark case than about the day-to-day fear of black individuals in the United States in 1925. Darrow emphasized that the attacking mob members could be seen as victims, too -- victims of hatred, inspired by race prejudice: ‘The law has made (the black man) equal, but man has not,” he said.

To be truly inspired, read Darrow's summation, which can be found on the University of Missouri–Kansas City law school's website.

J. E. Kuhlman is an adjunct professor and writer living in Ohio.

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