By Brooke Pratt–

On Nov. 4, the Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research put on their ninth annual Anne Braden Memorial Lecture with keynote speaker, Carol Anderson, Ph.D.

Carol Anderson is an associate professor of African American Studies and History at Emory University. She also holds the position of an endowed chair at Emory University.

Not only is Anderson a professor of high achievement, but she is also a very accomplished author. Her first and most-known book is “Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955.”

The event opened with Gary Edjukatedrebel Brice, poet and activist, performing a poem detailing the history of black oppression through the decades and their political and social constructs. Brice centered his poem on the subject of white people using politics and wealth to oppress black people. During his performance he says, “The root in the problem can be seen in the history of wealth.”

Following the performance, Cate Fosl, the director of Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research, gave a warm welcome to Anderson. She said that Anderson “inspires us to activism” and praised her for all of her accomplishments.

As Anderson took the stage, she introduced herself by saying, “I am not here to talk about black rage, but white rage.” She then followed up by letting her audience know that she didn’t materialized the concept of white rage from seeing the acts of the incident with Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. She recognized white rage as a concept during the 1999 Amadou Diallo incident in the Bronx where an unarmed 22-year-old was shot at 41 times and hit with bullets 19 times.

Anderson said, “Something is wrong if the policy allows this to happen.”

She then discussed Ferguson and how the media framed the situation following the death of Michael Brown in a way that focused on the riots and the burning of Ferguson, rather than the actual event of death. Anderson said, “Everyone was so focused on the black flames that they missed the kindling of the fire.

“White rage is not about deadly violence, it’s about legislation. White rage is triggered by black advancement.”

Anderson detailed her main point of the lecture in the case The People v. Ossian Sweet, Gladys Sweet (1925). Ossian Sweet, a black man, had a law practice in Detroit’s “black bottom” area. This was the part of town where African-Americans lived in very close-quarters, due to a housing shortage.

In Detroit during the 1920s there was a very large demographic shift of black people coming from the south. Detroit’s black population stood at just 7,000 in 1915, and by 1925 the number had risen to 80,000.

Most of these homes didn’t have indoor plumbing, and sometimes more than four people would be living in one bedroom apartments.

Sweet was able to buy a home in a white neighborhood so that he could raise his family in an area that wasn’t so cramped and had indoor plumbing.

Sweet was aware of what could happen — he saw the lynching of a small boy and other rioting acts throughout his life. Thus, Sweet brought guns and ammunition with him to his new home. Sweet was rightful in doing so, because only five hours after he moved into his new home a mob had formed outside.

Sweet called the police immediately and they came, stood and watched as the mob grew in size, throwing rocks and hurling racial slurs at the Sweet’s new home. As rocks kept coming through the windows of the Sweet’s home, one of the occupants finally shot out, and a white man named Leon Breiner was killed and a white teenager named Erick Houghberg was seriously wounded.

As the incident went to court, the facts were skewed and lies were told. The jury was hung, but they fought on and received a second trial, which found the Sweets not guilty. However, while Gladys Sweet was in prison during the trial, she contracted tuberculosis, which she then gave the sweets baby and late Ossian Sweet. They all died.

Anderson summarized the prosecution utilizing this quote from Mayor Johnny Smith: “You have these folks, like Ossian Sweet, who invade these white neighborhoods knowing they’re going to cause a race riot that spirals Detroit into the hands of the Klan. If black people would just stop trying to get every little last right that they have on the law books, there would be peace in Detroit.”

“In other words,” said Anderson, “peace was based on black people quietly and gracefully accepting the fact that they had no right to their rights.”

Anderson concluded her story of the Sweets by saying, “White rage took a family that embodied the American dream—hard work, education, striving, determination, commitment to achievement and success—and brought the full weight of the law down on them until nothing was left. It sent a heartening message: a warning.

“But I ask, what would the risk of trying to raise of family in ‘black bottom,’ an area where absentee property owners had abandoned all responsibility except to collect inflated rent checks for dilapidated housing? What would the risk of living in a space that have 10 times more people than it could reasonable hold? Equally important, what kind of society forces honest, hardworking people to make that choice?”

She concluded her lecture with a question and answer portion. At the end, the crowd gave Anderson a standing ovation.


Photo courtesy / Anne Braden Institute