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Great Michigan Read

October 17, 2011

On the first day of her new job as director of the Michigan Humanities Council, Executive Director Katie Wolf learned that a book she had not read yet was selected for the 2011-12 Great Michigan Read program. As she looked over the content of the selection, the 2004 National Book Award Winner Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder In the Jazz Age, she thought to herself: “this is a tough subject and a tough sell.”

Since, she has read former Detroiter Kevin Boyle’s non-fiction look at the 1925 killing in Detroit of a white man by a black man and the ensuing trial that garnered national attention and helped set the stage for the nascent civil rights movement. She admits the book “was emotional at times.”

“I’m ecstatic now,” she said about the selection. “More than 250 communities, libraries and organizations across Michigan from Marquette to Detroit are participating in the program. When I think of all the people engaged in the Great Michigan Read program, it is very fulfilling.”

The success of the program, which kicks off on October 22 in Alpena with a six-city tour by Boyle, has sent the Council back to the presses for reader’s guides, teacher’s guides and the book itself, which the Council has provided free to non-profit groups.

Arc tells the story of Detroit physician Ossian (pronounced Ocean) Sweet and his family, who set off a cascading series of events when he became one of the first blacks to buy a house and move into an all-white Detroit neighborhood in 1925. The times were tense as the influx of Southern blacks moving to Detroit as part of the “great migration” pushed against white society’s standards.

When a mob gathered to protest and started pelting the Sweet home with stones, someone from inside the home fired shots into the crowd, killing one man and wounding another. Sweet and 10 of his family and friends were arrested on suspicion of murder. Most were held without bail until the trial was completed.

Boyle, who was raised in Detroit and studied at the University of Detroit and University of Michigan and now teaches at Ohio State University, is more than an historian. He is a great story teller who can mesmerize you with the nuanced retelling of a trial in which you can easily find the outcome on Wikipedia. “Guilty” or “Not Guilty” becomes secondary.

His research is impeccable, likely due to his studying under the legendary U-M history professor Sidney Fine, who wrote the seminal history of the Detroit Riots, Violence in the Model City, and a three-volume history of one of Michigan’s most illustrious public figures, Governor Frank Murphy.

During his graduate studies with Fine, a little of Frank Murphy’s history may have rubbed off on Boyle. Murphy was the presiding judge at the Sweet Trial and would go on to become governor of Michigan and an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The trial, the dynamic and bustling city, the menacing presence of the Ku Klux Klan and the issues of race alone would make the murder worthy of a book. But when crusading attorney Clarence Darrow entered the case, he elevated the trial to national attention. Darrow had already made a name for himself in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial and numerous other high-profile cases typically involving the rights of the underdog.

“He gave enormous life to the story. He doesn’t show up in the book until chapter eight, and then the book really takes off,” Boyle said.

Boyle said the flamboyant Darrow was a “mess of contradiction,” showing the complexity of human life. “He liked to get people pissed. He liked to poke people with a sharpened stick, and if he got it in the eye, all the better.” Darrow, as the book shows, pokes plenty of sharpened sticks at institutionalized racism while in Detroit defending Sweet.

Boyle said the book also looks at the impact of the killing, the trial and its aftermath on Sweet, his family and the community as a whole. He said that in the end, the outcomes for the Sweet family and the murder victim’s family were equally tragic.

The idea of a statewide read program is to get people talking and, in addition to Boyle’s six stops (Alpena, Marquette, Grand Rapids, Flint, Detroit and Lansing) to discuss his book, numerous cities are sponsoring additional programs, including Lansing (Capital Area District Library), Detroit (Charles H. Wright Museum for African American History) and the Grand Rapids Public Library.

In his book, Boyle also indirectly makes the case for the importance of preserving history. While researching the Sweet family in the National Archives, he was able to trace them to their slave experience. In Lansing, he uncovered details about Sweet’s marriage, his medical licensing, and, still playing history detective, he was able to recover some records that were thought long lost.

For history geeks, that in itself is an interesting story. Boyle wanted the police records from the night of the murder and the arrest of the Sweet contingent, but learned they had been thrown out.

Then, while interviewing Michigan playwright Arthur Beer, who wrote the play Malice Aforethought on the Sweet trial for the Michigan Sesquicentennial in 1987, Boyle discovered that Beer had copied some police records. Beer had stored them in his basement and recovered them and mailed them to Boyle. Inside were the complete interrogation transcripts of the alleged murderers.

Boyle said these primary records, which were from conversations only two or three hours after the killing, allowed “all 11 of them [who were arrested] to become real people…. “You can’t top that experience — they give the book a lot more experience.”

What Boyle calls luck was the dogged effort of a trained historian, one who learned from the best, Sidney Fine. Fine’s legacy, Boyle said, was “getting it right.”

Finally, Boyle said he wrote the book for his father, who reviewed the book as he was writing it. He describes his father as a great reader but not an academic man.

“It sounds hokey but true,” Boyle said, describing how he pictured his father reading before bed time, getting ready to turn off the light but saying to himself, “I’ve got to finish this first.”

What Wolf especially likes about the Great Michigan Read is how classrooms as distant and different as Marquette and Detroit are using the book to study the same issues, bolstered by extensive reader’s and teacher’s guides. In addition, inserts in 10 Michigan newspapers recently went out, reaching nearly a half million people.

The Council fully expects more than 1 million Michigan residents to be touched by the book in some way.

Bill Castanier, a retired state government administrator and Michigan State University advertising graduate, writes a weekly literary column for Lansing City Pulse and manages the blog mittenlit.com, a daily look at Michigan literature and authors. He also is a member of the Michigan Notable Book selection committee and the board of MSU Press.

October 17, 2011 · Filed under Bookit Tags: , , , , ,

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