7/05 In Defense Of Hearth And Home
Dr. Ossian Sweet is not a household name in America, but his experience helped shape current gun control laws put on the books nearly 100 years ago — laws which are still afflicting us even now.
In turmoil that was a preview of the civil rights struggle a half century later, Dr. Sweet moved his young family into a white (only) neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan in the summer of 1925. Educated in Washington, DC and in Europe, Dr. Sweet was an obstetrician looking for a hard-to-find place for his middle class family to live as he began his practice in Detroit.
The rub was race. Ossian Sweet and his family were black and Detroit was a city full of tensions stoked by an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
The arrival of the Sweets at their new house on 2905 Garland Avenue was not met by the traditional welcome wagon. Instead, agitators began to ramp up the tensions day by day.
Sweet had carefully planned his family’s move to their new home. That included the purchase of firearms after receiving that advice from another black physician. Good thing, too, because shortly after moving in the neighborhood, tension became a full-scale mob threatening the family with death and destruction. As the crowd got ever menacing, the police were decidedly unwilling to disperse the crowd.
As Phyllis Vine narrates the scene in One Man’s Castle, rocks and bottles were bombarding the house. As two of Sweets friends came out on the porch with revolvers drawn, bullets exploded from their guns. “The two ran in opposite directions. An instant of calm followed. Then there were several more shots, crashing glass, and a fusillade of stone thundering down the roof. Then it was silent.” In a contest of stones and bottles vs. bullets, the bullets finally won out.
The police then came in and arrested the defenders, denying that there had been any rocks thrown (ignoring the rocks on the floor under broken glass). Two of the mob had been shot, one slightly wounded and the other mortally.
Unlike the Deacons for Defense forty years later in the Deep South, there was no organized black militia. Sweet and a few friends were the total defense force at 2905 Garland Avenue. The crowd was finally subdued by the gunfire, but not as thoroughly as if the Deacons had been present with a show of armed force that frequently was enough to turn the white-sheeted attackers quite yellow.
Sweet and friends were hauled off to jail and a desperate legal struggle began. The NAACP was finally able to recruit the services of the nationally renowned Clarence Darrow.
Darrow, and the fundraising efforts of the NAACP, enabled Sweet to mount an effective legal defense. The all white jury realized that there had been a dangerous mob threatening the Sweet family that had met no resistance from the police.
It was also clear that no one could be sure who had fired the fatal shot at one of the menacing thugs outside. To the great credit of the jury, they brought a verdict of acquittal for Sweet and friends.
The bad news is that the failure to convict in court led to an ex post facto effort to disarm blacks by the legislature in Lansing. That is when Michigan’s concealed carry law was passed. While the language was general, prohibiting all persons from carrying a concealed firearm without government permission, it was obvious that blacks were the primary targets. Gun control was for the purpose of black control.
A Florida judge in the early 20th Century was unusually candid about the purpose of his state’s concealed carry law: “[T]he Act was passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers…. “(Watson v. Stone, 1941)
A measure of the “progress” of our times is that laws like Michigan’s weapons permit law are now applied uniformly without discrimination. Now all citizens are equally oppressed by a system designed to restrict people from freely protecting themselves with a concealed firearm.
Even after a recent reform to require the issuance of a permit if a citizen can prove to the authorities that he is worthy to carry a gun, the law in Michigan is still among the most restrictive in the country.
America will not be free until the prejudice against those wishing to defend themselves has been put behind us. Dr. Sweet would be able to buy any house in Detroit that he had the money for in the 21st century, but he would be at least as encumbered in seeking to defend himself — if not more so — than he was in 1925.
We have come a long way, but we have many more miles to travel.