Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ossian Sweet and the power of client narrative

We often worry that clients' voice is lost in the process of representation. The story that gets told, though not false, is a story keyed to the elements of the case, or to some other persuasive need, rather than to the client's understanding of the narrative of his or her life. But my co-author Ann Shalleck, in her chapter on "Narrative Theory and Narrative Practices" in our new book (Lawyers and Clients: Critical Issues in Interviewing and Counseling (2009) -- see my previous post for the book announcement) emphasizes that clients' own narratives change over time, and in part as a result of the influence of the lawyer. Sometimes those changes are benign. Sometimes they may not be.

In his fascinating book Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age (2004), Kevin Boyle tells the story of Dr. Ossian Sweet and his trial. Dr. Sweet was an African American physician, living in Detroit, who in 1925 made the decision to move with his family into a house in an all-white neighborhood. The results were disastrous. A white crowd swelled around his house on each of his first two nights in it; the second night, members of the crowd began hurling stones at the house, and as the stones fell someone (or someones) in the house fired into the crowd, wounding one person and killing another. Dr. Sweet and the 10 other people in the house were all arrested and charged with murder.

As Boyle tells the story, Dr. Sweet emerges as a conflicted man, who was almost overcome by anxiety as the mob surrounded his house. He seems not so much to have decided to risk everything for the sake of his right to purchase this house as to have been unable to back down from the purchase as the extent of the peril he and his family faced became clear. None of this is to his discredit; the fact is that he did exercise his right to purchase a house anywhere he could afford, and he determined to defend the house against attack, and he did so. (He did not, however, fire any shots himself.)

Boyle tells us that after their arrests, Dr. Sweet and most of the others initially told the authorities, falsely, that they weren't in the house that night to defend it but rather were just waiting for dinner when the trouble began. (Boyle, at 173-74.) Apparently it was Clarence Darrow, perhaps accompanied by Walter White of the NAACP (which had made this case a cause), who persuaded the defendants to tell the story more fully. In Boyle's words:

"For the longest time, Darrow sat with Ossian and the others, listening to them recount the evening on Garland Avenue, gently pressing them to admit to the shooting rather than cling to the unlikely stories they had concocted the night of the police interrogation, quietly reassuring them that the case could be won even if they had fired into the crowd, bridging the chasm between the famous white lawyer and ten desperately afraid colored men with his remarkable gift for empathy." (244)

Along the way, however, Dr. Sweet's understanding of his own story changed. "[H]e began to see the road he had followed to Garland Avenue as much straighter, his steps more purposeful, than they had actually been." (247) Perhaps Dr. Sweet was influenced by his sense of what a jury might respond to, and perhaps he was moved by the praise that his supporters offered for him. I don't mean that he falsified any concrete fact of his story, just that he came to see it as a story of his own manifest heroism.

That may have been fine for the two trials, at the first of which Dr. Sweet responded to cross-examination "with a dignity so fierce it was inspiring" (290), and at the second of which "he seemed to straighten in his seat as the questions were asked.... Now the fear was gone, replaced by unbending pride, the terrified little boy of Bartow given way to a New Negro willing to risk everything in defense of his family, his home, and his principles." (327-28) And the trials ultimately ended in complete legal victory for the defendants.

Unfortunately, it was not fine for Dr. Sweet as a person. Between the two trials, Dr. Sweet and his wife, Gladys (also a defendant), went on a tour planned by the NAACP. A pastor accompanying them said that "Each day he [Dr. Sweet] got more egotistic." (306). The same man said that "I averted no fewer than four scenes ... [and] abated five quarrels between the Sweets." (306-07)

Perhaps all would have been well in time. But as it turned out, Gladys Sweet and the Sweets' one-year-old daughter Iva contracted tuberculosis, very possibly from the jail in which they were confined after the arrests, and both died of it. (344) Dr. Sweet lived in the house he had bought for many years, but his life went awry in multiple ways, and at the age of 64 he shot and killed himself. (344-46) Would he have handled better the challenges he faced if he had not come to see himself, at one point in his life, as a more unambiguously heroic man than he (or almost anyone else) could be? We don't know. But the book leaves the strong impression that the case, the cause, became so great that it changed even the individuals whose cause it was, and not entirely for the better.


For me, reading Arc of Justice raised another, more personal question. In 1925, my grandfather, James Ellmann, was a young attorney practicing in Detroit and raising a family along with his wife Jean. He would go on to be active in civil rights issues, but the first trace of that activity that I've found so far on the web is in the mid-late 1930s. There's no sign that he was involved in any way in the Sweet case. I can't help but think, though, that he must have been inspired by this celebrated, dramatic case, involving local people and the most prominent lawyer of the age. So I hope that one of the effects of this case -- which brought Dr. Sweet freedom but not happiness, and helped launch the NAACP's legal challenges to racism even while Northern cities' residential segregation intensified (342-43) -- was to play some part in my grandfather's political development, and so my father's, and so mine.

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