‘I Believe In The Law Of Love’ …Clarence Darrow Made This Speech On April 1926 In Defence Of Henry Sweet


The extract is from Clarence Darrow’s seven-hour closing defence argument in Henry Sweet’s trial for murder in April 1926. Sweet was a member of a black family who reacted with force against a white mob trying to evict them from their home in a white neighbourhood in Detroit.
The growing car industry brought an influx of black workers to Detroit in the early 1920s and racial hatred was stirred up by Ku Klux Klan rallies, with white mobs driving out black professionals living in largely white housing areas and threatening others planning to move in.
That night as the Sweets moved into their home an organised riot broke out, and rocks were thrown at the house. The Sweets reacted by firing from an upper floor and Leon Breiner, a white man, was killed. The Sweets were tried for murder as a family and defended by Darrow. The jury failed to reach a verdict and the defendants were released on bail. Darrow then defended Henry Sweet, who admitted to firing a gun, in the first of individual trials of each family member. Darrow believed that if he could secure an acquittal for Sweet, the case for the other trials would disappear.
In his long summing-up Darrow demonstrated his superb qualities as a lawyer- immense courtroom skill, strong dramatic instincts and powerful persuasive abilities. Darrow argued that the case was about racism not 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 … Now, that is the case, gentlemen, and that is all there is to this case. Take the hatred away, and you have nothing left.’ The jury took four hours to reach a ‘not guilty’ verdict and in July 1926 the other defendants’ charges were dropped. Although the case ended in triumph for Darrow, the Sweets’ story is less happy. They returned to their home but several family members, including Henry Sweet, died of tuberculosis within years of the trial and his co-accused brother Ossian later took his own life.
Born in 1857 in rural Ohio, Darrow grew up in an atmosphere of radical agnosticism. He read law in Ohio, was admitted to the Bar in 1878 and practised locally for some years. Inspired by the liberal and progressive ideas of Judge John Altgeld, Darrow moved to Chicago in 1887 where he and Altgeld became friends. Darrow became active in local democratic politics and in 1890 was appointed Chicago’s corporation counsel. He later acted as general attorney to the Chicago and North Western Railway.
Darrow soon won a reputation as a labour lawyer, fighting many high-profile cases defending union leaders and miners. Following the complex McNamara brothers’ case, in which Darrow was discredited by the defendants’ sudden change of plea to guilty, he retired from labour law and moved into criminal law. Darrow was then involved in various headline-making cases. They included the 1924 Leopold-Loeb case, in which Darrow made innovative and successful use of psychiatric theories about determinism in human behaviour to have two teenagers’ likely death sentences for murdering a young boy commuted to life imprisonment.
A lifelong agnostic, in 1925 Darrow took on the high-profile but ultimately unsuccessful defence of John Thomas Scopes for violating Tennessee’s laws banning the teaching of the theory of evolution in public schools, the Scopes ‘Monkey’ trial. Darrow’s cross-examination of the anti-scientific, fundamentalist side won national attention. In 1925-26 he fought segregation and intolerance in the Sweet trial.
Darrow was a prolific writer, speaker and lecturer, writing Crime: Its Cause and Treatment (1922) and Infidels and Heretics (1929), which argued the case for free thinking. Despising convention, he often appeared in court in shirtsleeves and braces. In more than 50 capital cases he lost only his first client to execution and was a strong opponent of capital punishment. After his death Darrow became a folk hero, the subject of various novels and plays, and still inspires a following today in the US Bar.
Now, gentlemen, just one more word, and I am through with this case. I do not live in Detroit. But I have no feeling against this city. In fact, I shall always have the kindest remembrance of it, especially if this case results as I think and feel that it will. 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 colour or his creed. We will never be civilised 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. These black faces that now are looking to you twelve whites, feeling that the hopes and fears of a race are in your keeping.
‘I believe you can do nothing with hatred.’
This case is about to end, gentlemen. To them, it is life. Not one of their colour 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.
‘I would like to see a time when man loves his fellow man, and forgets his colour or his creed.
We will never be civilised until that time comes.’
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!