Mexicans flooding across the U.S. border after NAFTA killed the farms at home, desparate to take any low wage job?
No. The first blank refers to Detroit, the home of the mushrooming auto industry in the 1920s. The migrants were African Americans from the U.S. South, flooding north for better wages.
No strangers to living in a white supremacist society, the migrants found themselves in a place where racist social structures presented new forms, dangers, and opportunities. Kevin Boyle's Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age is a vivid, absorbing, horrifying and very human story of one of the clashes created by these new circumstances.
Like Boyle, I'll describe the story using the language of the period. A white man was killed by shots fired by Negroes. Detroit boiled with the passions unleashed by the case. People and socials forces mixed in unlikely combinations. Some of the characters included:
- a proud, but somewhat timid, Negro doctor who had made the hard climb out of Southern poverty to professional success;
- his Northern, middle class Negro wife who had grown up comfortably in white surroundings in a city not yet feeling overrun by Negro migrants to the factories;
- a violent white working class mob, determined not to lose the shred of privilege conferred by living in an all white neighborhood;
- Klu Klux Klan demagogues who saw the arrival of the Negro migrants as an opportunity to inflame hatreds;
- white ethnic politicians who hoped to ally with the Negro migrants to overthrow the entrenched WASP upper class;
- ambitious, entrepreneurial Negro activists who saw in the murder case a chance to raise funds to put the NAACP on a solid footing;
- and the aging celebrity lawyer, Clarence Darrow, who made of the case an occasion to star once more in his own drama of righteous combat against injustice.
African American migrants. Photo from an exhibit at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. The Buffalo institution shows the photo by permission of the Library of Congress.