Clarence Darrow, in 1926, On Why Black Lives Matter

The all white Detroit jury that acquitted Dr. Sweet.

The all white Detroit jury that acquitted Dr. Sweet.

When I referred to Clarence Darrow’s support for terrorist John Brown in the previous post, I reviewed other references to the great trial lawyer that have appeared here. (As you may know, I authored a one-man play about Darrow, still performed to legal groups by actor (and my friend) Paul Morella, and with historian Ed Larson compiled selections from Darrow’s writings, court appearances and speeches, The Essential Words and Writings of Clarence Darrow.) I have also posted on his famous Leopold and Loeb argument against capital punishment, but I was shocked to find out that I never posted any part of his closing argument in the murder trial of Dr. Sweet.  I need to remedy that omission now. That courtroom oratory is not only the best of Darrow’s closing arguments, but also the most relevant to current events. It is a masterpiece, and  also astonishingly prescient and wise.

In 1925, Dr. Henry Ossian Sweet, a black man, moved his family into a house in a previously segregated section of Detroit. Mobs of whites gathered outside the house with torches, clubs and guns the first two nights of their residence, as police stood by passively. On the second night, a gunshot coming from the house killed one of the demonstrators, and all 11 residents of the home, including Dr. Sweet, were charged with murder. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People hired Clarence Darrow to handle the defense.

There were two trials, the first ending in a hung jury. In the second, Darrow performed a seven hour closing argument, aspects of which have inspired homages in “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “A Time to Kill.” Despite the all-white jury, Dr. Sweet was acquitted, and the charges against the others were dropped. Darrow isn’t a legend for nothing.

I have left out the parts of the closing argument that recount the testimony and the facts of the case: you can read about the trials on Doug Linder’s excellent website, and you can read Darrow’s whole closing here. This redacted version focuses on Darrow comments about race and race relations. It is longer than the version we used in the play, but this is the version I would have used if audiences could tolerate a three hour one man show.

I continue to believe that this was the high point of Darrow’s incredible career, and also one of the most impressive—and gutsy—speeches in our history. Only Clarence Darrow would challenge an all-white jury like this in 1925. It is also unbearably moving. Paul, when he performs the selection, ends with tears streaming down his face, as Darrow did. You might too. Try reading it aloud to your kid. Or to yourself.

This post also relates to another recent post, the one about jury nullification. That is really what Darrow is arguing here, in the context of confronting racial injustice and bigotry for the survival of the nation and society. The white victim of the shooting was shot in the back. Darrow, at one point, calls it murder himself. Nonetheless, he argues that acquitting Sweet and his family is the right thing to do, whatever the law says.

Here is my abridged version of the epic closing argument made by Clarence Darrow, May 11, 1926, in defense of Dr. Sweet and his family.


…I shall begin about where my friend Mr. Moll [Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Lester Moll ] began yesterday. He says lightly, gentlemen, that this isn’t a race question. “This is a murder case. We don’t want any prejudice; we don’t want the other side to have any. Race and color have nothing to do with this case. This is a case of murder.”…I insist that there is nothing but prejudice in this case; that if it was reversed and eleven white men had shot and killed a black while protecting their home and their lives against a mob of blacks, nobody would have dreamed of having them indicted. I know what I am talking about, and so do you. They would have been given medals instead.

Eleven colored men and one woman are in this indictment, tried by twelve jurors, gentlemen. Every one of you are white, aren’t you? At least you all think so. We haven’t one colored man on this jury. We couldn’t get one. One was called and he was disqualified. You twelve white men are trying a colored man on race prejudice. …I want to put this square to you, gentlemen. I haven’t any doubt but that every one of you are prejudiced against colored people. I want you to guard against it. I want you to do all you can to be fair in this case, and I believe you will.

\A number of you people have answered the question that you are acquainted with colored people. …Some of the rest of you said that you had employed colored people to work for you, are even employing them now. All right…How many of you jurors, gentlemen, have ever had a colored person visit you in your home? How many of you have ever visited in their homes? How many of you have invited them to dinner at your house? Probably not one of you.

Now, why, gentlemen? There isn’t one of you men but that know just from the witnesses you have seen in this case that there are colored people who are intellectually the equal of all of you. Am I right? Colored people living right here in the City of Detroit are intellectually the equals and some of them superior to most of us. Is that true? Some of them are people of more character and learning than most of us. …Now, why don’t you individually, and why don’t I and why doesn’t every white person whose chances have been greater and whose wealth is larger, associate with them? There is only one reason, and that is prejudice. Can you give any other reason for it? …Is there any reason in the world why we don’t associate with them excepting prejudice? Still, none of us want to be prejudiced. I think not one man of this jury wants to be prejudiced. It is forced into us almost from our youth until somehow or other we feel we are superior to these people who have black faces.

Now, gentlemen, I say you are prejudiced….You will overcome it, I believe, in the trial of this case. But they tell me there is no race prejudice, and it is plain nonsense, and nothing else. Who are we, anyway? A child is born into this world without any knowledge of any sort. He has a brain which is a piece of putty; he inherits nothing in the way of knowledge or of ideas. If he is white, he knows nothing about color. He has no antipathy to the black.

The black and the white both will live together and play together, but as soon as the baby is born we begin giving him ideas. We begin planting seeds in his mind. We begin telling him he must do this and he must not do that. We tell him about race and social equality and the thousands of things that men talk about until he grows up. It has been trained into us, and you, gentlemen, bring that feeling into this jury box, and that feeling which is a part of your life long training.

You need not tell me you are not prejudiced. I know better. We are not very much but a bundle of prejudices anyhow. We are prejudiced against other peoples’ color. Prejudiced against other men’s religion; prejudiced against other peoples’ politics. Prejudiced against peoples’ looks. Prejudiced about the way they dress. We are full of prejudices. You can teach a man anything beginning with the child; you can make anything out of him, and we are not responsible for it. Here and there some of us haven’t any prejudices on some questions, but if you look deep enough you will find them; and we all know it.

Gentlemen, lawyers are very intemperate in their statements. My friend, Moll, said that my client here was a coward…

Who are the cowards in this case? Cowards, gentlemen! Eleven people with black skins, eleven people, gentlemen, whose ancestors did not come to America because they wanted to, but were brought here in slave ships, to toil for nothing, for the whites–whose lives have been taken in nearly every state in the Union,–they have been victims of riots all over this land of the free. They have had to take what is left after everybody else has grabbed what he wanted. The only place where he has been put in front is on the battle field. When we are fighting we give him a chance to die, and the best chance. But, everywhere else, he has been food for the flames, and the ropes, and the knives, and the guns and hate of the white, regardless of law and liberty, and the common sentiments of justice that should move men. Were they cowards? No, gentlemen…They may have tried to murder, but they were not cowards.

I will tell you what I know, or what I think I know, gentlemen. I will try to speak as modestly as I can; knowing the uncertainty of human knowledge, because it is uncertain. The best I can do is to go a little way back. I know that in back of us all and each of us is the blood of all the world. I know that it courses in your veins and in mine. It has all come out of the infinite past, and I can’t pick out mine and you can’t pick out yours, and it is only the ignorant who know, and I believe that in back of that—in back of that—is what we call the lower order of life; in back of that there lurks the instinct of the distant serpent, of the carnivorous tiger. All the elements have been gathered together to make the mixture that is you and I and all the race, and nobody knows anything about his own.
Gentlemen, I wonder who we are anyhow, to be so proud about our ancestry? We had better try to do something to be proud of ourselves; we had better try to do something kindly, something humane, to some human being, than to brag about our ancestry, of which none of us know anything. …Aren’t you glad you are not black? You deserve a lot of credit for it, don’t you, because you didn’t choose black ancestry. People ought to be killed who chose black ancestry.

…Gentlemen, nature works in a queer way. I don’t know how this question of color will ever be solved, or whether it will be solved. Nature has a way of doing things…She makes a man. She tries endless experiments before the man is done. She wants to make a race and it takes an infinite mixture to make it. She wants to give us some conception of human rights, and some kindness and charity and she makes pain and suffering and sorrow and death. It all counts. That is a rough way, but it is the only way. It all counts in the great, long broad scheme of things.

I look on a trial like this with a feeling of disgust and shame. I can’t help it now. It will be after we have learned in the terrible and expensive school of human experience that we will be willing to find each other and understand each other…

These despised blacks did not need to wait until the house was beaten down above their heads. They didn’t need to wait until every window was broken. They didn’t need to wait longer for that mob to grow more inflamed. There is nothing so dangerous as ignorance and bigotry when it is unleashed, as it was here.…The first instinct a man has is to save his life. He doesn’t need to experiment. He hasn’t time to experiment. When he thinks it is time to save his life, he has the right to act. There isn’t any question about it…

Now, let us look at these fellows. Here were eleven colored men, penned up in the house. Put yourselves in their place. Make yourselves colored for a little while. It won’t hurt, you can wash it off. They can’t, but you can; just make yourself black men for a little while; long enough, gentlemen, to judge them, and before any of you would want to be judged, you would want your juror to put himself in your place. That is all I ask in this case, gentlemen. They were black, and they knew the history of the black.

… I should imagine that the only thing that two or three colored people talk of when they get together is race. I imagine that they can’t rub color off their face or rub it out of their minds. I imagine that it is with them always. I imagine that the stories of lynchings, the stories of murders, the stories of oppression are a topic of constant conversation. I imagine that everything that appears in the newspapers on this subject is carried from one to another until every man knows what others know, upon the topic which is the most important of all to their lives.

What do you think about it? Suppose you were black. Do you think you would forget it, even in your dreams? Or would you have black dreams? Suppose you had to watch every point of contact with your neighbor and remember your color, and you knew your children were growing up under this handicap. Do you suppose you would think of anything else?

…The jury isn’t supposed to be entirely ignorant. They are supposed to know something. These black people were in the house with the black man’s psychology, and with the black man’s fear, based on what they had heard and what they had read and what they knew. I don’t need to go far. I don’t need to travel to Florida. I don’t even need to talk about the Chicago riots. The testimony showed that in Chicago a colored boy on a raft had been washed to a white bathing beach, and men and boys of my race stoned him to death. A riot began, and some hundred and twenty were killed.

I don’t need to go to Washington or to St. Louis… I don’t need to go far either in space or time. Let us take this city…I appeal to you, gentlemen, to do your part to save the honor of this city, to save its reputation, to save yours, to save its name, and to save the poor colored people who can not save themselves…

Let us take a little glance at the history of the Negro race. It only needs a minute. It seems to me that the story would melt hearts of stone.

… Some other men, reading about this land of freedom that we brag about on the 4th of July, came voluntarily to America. These men, the defendants, are here because they could not help it. Their ancestors were captured in the jungles and on the plains of Africa, captured as you capture wild beasts, torn from their homes and their kindred; loaded into slave ships, packed like sardines in a box, half of them dying on the ocean passage; some jumping into the sea in their frenzy, when they had a chance to choose death in place of slavery. They were captured and brought here. They could not help it. They were bought and sold as slaves, to work without pay, because they were black. They were subjected to all of this for generations, until finally they were given their liberty, so far as the law goes—and that is only a little way, because, after all, every human being’s life in this world is inevitably mixed with every other life and, no matter what laws we pass, no matter what precautions we take, unless the people we meet are kindly and decent and human and liberty-loving, then there is no liberty. Freedom comes from human beings, rather than from laws and institutions.

… If the race that we belong to owes anything to any human being, or to any power in this universe, they owe it to these black men. Above all other men, they owe an obligation and a duty to these black men which can never be repaid. I never see one of them, that I do not feel I ought to pay part of the debt of my race, and if you gentlemen feel as you should feel in this case, your emotions will be like mine.

…It is not often that a case is submitted to twelve men where the decision may mean a milestone in the progress of the human race. But this case does. And, I hope and I trust that you have a feeling of responsibility that will make you take it and do your duty as citizens of a great nation, and, as members of the human family, which is better still.

…Now, gentlemen, just one more word, and I am through with this case…I am the last one to come here to stir up race hatred, or any other hatred. I do not believe in the law of hate. I may not be true to my ideals always, but I believe in the law of love, and I believe you can do nothing with hatred. I would like to see a time when man loves his fellow man, and forgets his color or his creed. We will never be civilized until that time comes.

I know the Negro race has a long road to go. I believe the life of the Negro race has been a life of tragedy, of injustice, of oppression. The law has made him equal, but man has not. And, after all, the last analysis is “What has man done?” and not “What has the law done?” I know there is a long road ahead of him before he can take the place which I believe he should take. I know that before him there is suffering, sorrow, tribulation and death among the blacks, and perhaps the whites. I am sorry. I would do what I could to avert it. I would advise patience. I would advise toleration. I would advise understanding. I would advise all of those things which are necessary for men who live together.

…Gentlemen, what do you think is your duty in this case? I have watched, day after day, these black, tense faces that have crowded this court.

[ NOTE: During Darrow’s seven hour narration, African Americans had arrived at the court and gathered in the gallery, as was portrayed later in the trial of Tom Robinson in the film adaptation of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” When Darrow noticed this, he dramatically gestured to them at this point, taking his plea out of the realm of the abstract and attaching human faces and lives to it.] 

These black faces that now are looking to you twelve whites, feeling that the hopes and fears of a race are in your keeping. This case is about to end, gentlemen. To them, it is life. Not one of their color sits on this jury. Their fate is in the hands of twelve whites. Their eyes are fixed on you, their hearts go out to you, and their hopes hang on your verdict.

This is all. I ask you, on behalf of this defendant, on behalf of these helpless ones who turn to you, and more than that on behalf of this great state, and this great city which must face this problem, and face it fairly —I ask you, in the name of progress and of the human race, to return a verdict of not guilty in this case!

And this is why, despite his many contradictions and hypocrisies, his ego and his cynicism, his callousness to his son and his infidelities to his two wives, and despite the fact that he was often an unethical lawyer, to the extent, at least once, of bribing jurors, Clarence Darrow is one of my heroes, and it is why I believe he was a great man as well as our greatest lawyer. I don’t think a man who wasn’t great could give a speech like this one.

It has, indeed, signature significance.

9 thoughts on “Clarence Darrow, in 1926, On Why Black Lives Matter

  1. >They were subjected to all of this for generations, until finally they were given their liberty, so far as the law goes—and that is only a little way, because, after all, every human being’s life in this world is inevitably mixed with every other life and, no matter what laws we pass, no matter what precautions we take, unless the people we meet are kindly and decent and human and liberty-loving, then there is no liberty. Freedom comes from human beings, rather than from laws and institutions.

    This is the most eloquent passage on liberty I’ve read in a long time. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

      • It’s not taught because history is reduced to rote memorization and lack of relevance. I had a teacher who set up a role play exercise for early labor unions, and most did the sheep route without understanding the issues and defending their reasoning. If it doesn’t fit nicely into a multiple guess test, it gets omitted too much.

      • It ought to be, but since it advances a message that people (in this case white people) can transcend their prejudices and make the right decision it won’t be included in any curriculum on American history.

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