A biographer must assess a subject’s good and bad—all the black, white and grays of character. And it was Darrow’s actions in another case, largely neglected by previous biographers, that finally put me, firmly, on his side.
In 1925, in the wake of the Scopes trial and at the height of his fame, when Darrow sorely needed money and could have commanded titanic fees on Wall Street, he declined to cash in. He went, instead, to Detroit, to represent the Sweet family, African-Americans who had fired into a racist mob that attacked their new home in a white neighborhood.
It was the summer of the Klan—when thousands of hooded bullies marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. Darrow defended the Sweets in two grueling trials that spanned seven months, for a token fee raised by the NAACP. He won the case, establishing a principle that black Americans had a right to self-defense.
Sweet “bought that home just as you buy yours, because he wanted a home to live in, to take his wife and to raise a family,” Darrow told the all-white jury. “No man lived a better life or died a better death than fighting for his home and his children.” At the end of his speech, James Weldon Johnson, the NAACP’s leader, embraced the aged lawyer and wept with him there in the courtroom. A few weeks later, Darrow was staggered by a heart attack. He was never the same.
He had been, said Steffens, “the attorney for the damned.” Ultimately, I forgave him.
John A. Farrell has written Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned.