Eric Holder, the new Attorney General, raised hackles in Washington, D.C. yesterday for calling Americans a “national of cowards” on race relations, pointing to failures to build inter-racial ties outside the workplace. I certainly respect Holder for raising a sensitive and important issue. But on the history, I think he’s wrong.
The roster of heroes on this score is long and impressive and, to my mind, it deserves more attention than the cowards. Other countries have struggled with racism and zenophobia, but America is rare in addressing it so directly. Obviously, divisions and prejudice still exist. But we live in an tie of promise and good will, with Barack Obama in the White House and Holder himself making history at Justice.
As my brief contribution, I’d like to mention some heroes, specifically two relationships that crossed the divide during times when attitudes were ugly and simple handshakes required courage. Both helped lay groundwork for the civil rights successes to come later:
— A friendship among two US Senators, Roscoe Conkling and Blanche Bruce; and
— The work of a great lawyer, Clarence Darrow, for a ground-breaking client, Ossian Sweet.
Blanche Bruce (photo above) was the second African-American to reach the U.S. Senate (Riram Revels of Mississippi was the first), the first to serve a full term (1875-1881), and the only black senator during those years. Bruce had escaped slavery during the Civil War and gone north. He taught school in Hannibal, Missouri, and briefly attended Oberlin College. After the War, he returned to Mississippi to make money as a planter and rose in Reconstruction politics.
By 1875, when Bruce reached Washington, D.C., America had already lost its wartime idealism and grown tired of Reconstruction, spawning an attitude of resentment against freed slaves. Lynchings and other crackdowns were were on the rise. Bruce, as the only black Senator, confronted stark bigotry from colleagues — particularly fellow Mississippi Senator Lucius Lamar. On the day of his swearing-in on the Senator floor, Bruce rose to step forward and take the oath, but both of his Mississippi colleagues (Lamar and out-going Senator James Alcorn) refused to escort him. For a moment, Bruce stood absolutely alone — until one Senator finally saw his embarrassment, stood up, and walked over from across the chamber, took Bruce’s arm, and announced himself Bruce’s sponsor. It was Roscoe Conkling of New York.
Roscoe Conkling was one of Washington’s most powerful figures in 1975, boss of the NY State Republican machine, leader of the Republican Stalwarts and intimate with President US Grant. Conkling took Bruce under his wing, made him a protege, coached him in Senate procedures and helped him win key committee seats. They became fast friends, and Bruce would go so far as to name his first-born son after Conkling. Young men named Roscoe would populate the family tree for generations.
Clarence Darrow had never met Ossian Sweet in 1925 when he agreed to take Sweet’s case. Sweet, an African-American physician, had purchased a home in a white neighborhood in Detroit. A mob of neighbors tried to drive him out, but Sweet refused to be intimidated. Mobs started congregating around the Sweet home. One night, gunshots rang out, and Sweet fired back. A white man in the crowd was hit and died.
Local prosecutors quickly indicted Sweet for murder and set trial before an all-white jury.
The recently-formed NAACP had trouble at first finding a lawyer to take Sweet’s case, until they asked Darrow. Darrow was already famous from a lifetime defending headline clients from labor leaders Eugene V. Debs and Bill Haywood to most recently John Scopes, the high school tachers accused in 1924 of teaching evolution in Dayton, Tennessee. Darrow quickly saw the importance of the case and agreed to lead the defense.
His appeal to the jury based on common humanity became an instant classic:
“You are facing a problem of two races, a problem that will take centuries to solve. If I felt none of you were prejudiced, I’d have no fear. I want you to be as unprejudiced as you can be…..Draw upon your imagination and think how you would feel if you fired at some black man in a black community, and then had to be tried by them…. The danger of a mob is not what it does, but what it might do. Mob psychology is the most dreadful thing with which man has to contend. Its action is like the starting of a prairie fire. A match in the stuble, and it spreads and spreads, devouring everything in its way….the mob was waiting to see the sacrifice of some helpless blacks. They came with malice in their hearts…”
It took two trials, but ultimately Darrow prevailed, presuading the jury to reach a unanimous verdict of not guilty on ground of self defense. Ossian Sweet went free, and a precedent against housing discrimination was set forty years before the Civil Rights Act.
We don’t often think of Clarance Darrow and Roscoe Conkling as civil rights heroes, and Blanche Bruce and Ossian Sweet rarely get attention for their ground-breaking roles. But if today we are keeping score on heroes versus cowards on achieving racial justice in America, then I am happy to offer them as evidence on the good side. Thanks. –KenA
For more background, see my two book recommendations for today:
— On Blanche Bruce, The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America’s First Black Dynasty, by Lawrence Otis Graham.
— On Darrow and the Sweet trials, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, by Kevin Boyle.