Kevin Boyle
Arc of justice by kevin boyle pb
Arc of Justice is the winner of the 2004 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Arc of Justice

A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age

An electrifying story of the sensational murder trial that divided a city and ignited the civil rights struggle

An impressive work…Deftly weaving together biography, courtroom drama, and social history, Mr. Boyle has produced a meticulously researched and engrossing book.”

The New York Times

In 1925, Detroit was a smoky swirl of jazz and speakeasies, assembly lines and fistfights. The advent of automobiles had brought workers from around the globe to compete for manufacturing jobs, and tensions often flared with the KKK in ascendance and violence rising. Ossian Sweet, a proud Negro doctor-grandson of a slave-had made the long climb from the ghetto to a home of his own in a previously all-white neighborhood. Yet just after his arrival, a mob gathered outside his house; suddenly, shots rang out: Sweet, or one of his defenders, had accidentally killed one of the whites threatening their lives and homes.

And so it began‑a chain of events that brought America’s greatest attorney, Clarence Darrow, into the fray and transformed Sweet into a controversial symbol of equality. Historian Kevin Boyle weaves the police investigation and courtroom drama of Sweet’s murder trial into an unforgettable tapestry of narrative history that documents the volatile America of the 1920s and movingly re-creates the Sweet family’s journey from slavery through the Great Migration to the middle class. Ossian Sweet’s story, so richly and poignantly captured here, is an epic tale of one man trapped by the battles of his era’s changing times.

Arc of Justice is the winner of the 2004 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

National Books Critics Circle Awards — Nominee, Society of Midland Authors Book Awards — Winner, Pulitzer Prize — Finalist, National Book Awards Winner, National Book Critics Circle Award — Nominee, National Book Critics Circle Awards — Nominee, Michigan Notable Books — Winners

An irresistible story. Boyle brings it back to life brilliantly…with a novelistic richness, always with a sure feel for tangled motivations and hidden agendas.”


Boyle dazzles us with the sweep of his erudition.… A spectacular story.”

Maureen Corrigan, NPR

Boyle has brilliantly rescued from obscurity a fascinating chapter in American history.… This popular history grips right up to the stunning jaw-dropper of an ending.”

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Arc of Justice does justice both to its complex protagonists and the issues they embraced. Masterfully weaving crime reporting and social history, Boyle has produced a fine and moving work.”

Los Angeles Times

Writing with the immediacy of a journalist and the flair of a novelist, [Boyle has] produced a history that’s at once an intense courtroom drama, a moving biography, and an engrossing look at race in America in the early 20th century.”

The Christian Science Monitor

Masterful… Boyle’s writing endows the story with the majesty and consequence of an epic.”

The Boston Globe
Clarence S Darrow

More praise for Arc of Justice

Told with exemplary care and intelligence, this narrative chronicles inflammatory times in black and white America and pays tribute to those heroes who struggled to get Old Jim Crow where he lived. The way history should be written.”

Arc of Justice perfectly illustrates why W.E.B. Du Bois insisted that a keen sense of drama and tragedy is the ally, not the enemy, of clear-eyed historical analysis of race in U.S. history. By turns a crime story and a gripping courtroom drama, a family tale and a stirring account of resistance, an evocation of American dreams and a narration of American violence, Boyle’s study takes us to the heart of interior lives and racist social processes at a key juncture in U.S. history.”

David Roediger, Babcock Professor of African American Studies and History, University of Illinois, author of Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past

Dr. Ossian Sweet bought a house in a white neighborhood in 1925. Detroit exploded as a result, and a largely forgotten, yet pivotal, civil rights moment in modern American history unfolded. Kevin Boyle’s vivid, deeply researched Arc of Justice is a powerful document that reads like a Greek tragedy in black and white. The lessons in liberty and law to be learned from it are color blind.”

David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of W. E. B. Du Bois

There are many hidden and semi-hidden and half-forgotten markers of the civil rights movement. Kevin Boyle’s careful, detailed study of a 1925 murder trial in Detroit is one such precursing marker. Arc of Justice is a necessary contribution to what seems like an insoluble moral dilemma: race in America.”

Paul Hendrickson, author of Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy

What a powerful and beautiful book! Kevin Boyle has done a great service to history with Arc of Justice. With deep research and graceful prose, he has taken a single moment, the hot September day in 1925 when Ossian and Gladys Sweet moved into a bungalow on Garland Avenue in Detroit, and from that woven an amazing and unforgettable story of prejudice and justice at the dawn of America’s racial awakening.”

David Maraniss, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of They Marched Into Sunlight and When Pride Still Mattered