The Detroit News
March 4, 1999

History Gives Verdict on self-defense

By Tim O’Brien

Black history can provide timely lessons that put today’s policy debates in a new light. Take, for instance, the African-American experience with the right to self-defense.

The story starts in September 1925, when Dr. Ossian Sweet moved his family into a two-story home on the corner of Garland and Charlevoix on Detroit’s east side. A prominent gynecologist and a graduate of Howard University medical school, Dr. Sweet had studied and worked in Europe — including a stint with Nobel Prize winner Madame Curie in Paris — before settling in Detroit.

One might expect that Sweet would be out of place in the poor, working-class neighborhood. And he was. But it was not so much because of his wealth and education as the fact that he was black and the neighbors were white.

After Sweet moved in, a mob of hundreds gathered across the street and grew increasingly ugly. The Waterworks Park Improvement Association, as the mob called itself, had driven another black doctor out of his Detroit home some weeks before.

Anticipating trouble, a dozen police officers cordoned off the area for three blocks around and walked up and down the street between the mob and the Sweet residence.

The Sweet family did their best to maintain an air of normalcy. Mrs. Sweet was in the kitchen preparing dinner, and several family and friends were helping unpack, when the crowd started howling and stones began pelting the house.

Dr. Sweet grabbed a gun and dashed to an upstairs window to get a better — and safer — view of what was going on outside his new home. Just as he saw a car with his brother, Henry, and a family friend pull up to the curb, a rock smashed through the window and showered him in shards.

The now-terrified doctor ran back downstairs to let his brother and their friend into the house as the crowd was screaming, “Here’s niggers! Get them! Get them!”

That’s when the first shot rang out. In the ensuing pandemonium, no one is certain how or in what order events then unfolded.

It is certain that six of the 11 people inside the house fired their weapons, as did at least one police officer outside; in fact, he emptied his revolver. Two people in the mob were struck — one fatally. The police, who until gunfire erupted had been little more than spectators, stormed the house and arrested everyone inside, charging them all with murder.

The sensational case polarized the city, but it ended up assigned to a judge whose integrity and personal courage would one day make him a Michigan legend. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime to demonstrate sincere liberalism,” remarked the unflappable presiding Judge Frank Murphy, who immediately released Mrs. Sweet on bail.

Nor were the defendants wanting for high-powered representation. Clarence Darrow came into Detroit to handle the case. This pioneer in the cause of “equal protection before the law” spent three weeks on jury selection alone — most of it in a painstakingly detailed recounting of the history of the black man in America.

Following a seven-week trial and three days of often acrimonious deliberations by the all-white jury, Judge Murphy ruled that a verdict could not be reached and declared a mistrial.

Prosecutors decided to retry only Ossian’s brother, Henry, who had freely admitted firing his gun.

At the second trial, Darrow never denied that his sole remaining client may have fired the fatal shot, but argued that the defendant was justified and acting in self-defense. The second jury (also all-white) took barely three hours to return a “not guilty” verdict.

As a consequence of this incident, the Ku Klux Klan — which operated much more openly in those days — lobbied for and obtained the first round of restrictive gun legislation in Michigan. The Public Acts of 1927 included the requirement that citizens obtain government-issued “purchase permits” following mandatory “safety inspections.” Even then, the opportunity to legally carry the weapon would be granted only at the whim of (unaccountable) county “gun boards.”

Following racial unrest in major American cities across the country in the early to mid-’60s — culminating in “the long, hot summer” of 1967 — the next round of restrictions came from the federal government in the form of the Gun Control Act of 1968. This legislation was modeled on the German Weapons Law of 1938 enacted by the Nazi government.

A revealing feature of the contemporary gun control movement has been the persistent drive to ban inexpensive handguns often disparagingly called “Saturday Night Specials” — an epithet based on an old racist line that any kind of riotous going-on was a “Niggertown Saturday Night.” And, indeed, it is pretty obvious that, at the least, a ban on inexpensive weapons targets poor people, if not strictly minorities.

None of this has proved effective in stemming violent crime because criminals, by definition, do not respect the law. Nevertheless, those who want to fully disarm the law-abiding have discovered a new tactic.

Since the courts have been unwilling and the Legislature unable to accomplish the goal of gun control advocates, several major cities have decided that perhaps civil litigation will hold gun manufacturers responsible for the misuse of their products and choke off the marketplace of firearms.

People are waiting to see whether the mayor of Dr. Ossian Sweet’s hometown may follow suit. Had Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer done so last week, it would have provided a tragically ironic end to Black History Month. For, as Jews have already discovered, disarming a people is only the first phase in attempting to end their history entirely.


Tim O’Brien of Allen Park is the chairman of the Michigan Libertarian Party. Write letters to The Detroit News, Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, Mich. 48226, or fax us at (313) 222-6417, or send an e-mail to

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