The assembly was unusual for Akron. Blacks and whites sat together in an auditorium.
An overflow crowd packed Central High School in February 1928 to hear a provocative lecture on race relations and prejudice.
The guest speaker was Chicago attorney Clarence Darrow, 71, an Ohio native who grew up in the Trumbull County village of Kinsman.
One of the nation’s top attorneys, Darrow was famous for his 1924 defense of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who were charged with kidnapping and killing Bobby Franks, 14, in Chicago, in “The Trial of the Century,” as well as the 1925 defense of educator John T. Scopes, who was arrested for teaching evolution in Dayton, Tenn. He served as a criminal defense lawyer in more than 100 murder trials.
The Akron chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People invited Darrow to address the subject of intolerance in American society. Attorney Emmer Lancaster, who in 1921 became the first African-American to graduate from the University of Akron, presided over the speech as the chapter’s president.
Darrow checked into Room 626 at the Portage Hotel at Main and Market streets before making his way through the bustling city toward the high school. The rubber capital had a sinister streak that wasn’t at all a secret.
In the 1920s, Akron’s chapter of the Ku Klux Klan boasted more than 52,000 members, including former Mayor D.C. Rybolt and four members of the school board. Klansmen marched in city parades and held cross burnings on the outskirts of town.
At Central High, Akron Law Director Aldrich B. Underwood introduced Darrow to the crowd as “the master of the American bar and friend of the weak and helpless.”
A large, imposing figure who spoke plainly but forcefully, Darrow sized up the audience as he took the podium.
“He does not appear at home on the speaking stage,” the Beacon Journal reported Feb. 21. “His posture is one of the attorney at law, accustomed to his counsel table, to striding close to the jury, analyzing the witness ...
“Although his words flow with a steady smooth charm, through the opening minutes of his address, his hands wandered through his pockets, to his hair, scratched his nose and, finally, with the thumb of his left hand hooked in the armpit of his vest, his right hand clenching the stand before him and his right shoulder hunched far forward, he settled into his address.”
In brutally frank remarks, the white attorney declared that the U.S. legal system was inherently biased against black people.
“There isn’t a state in the union where a colored man has an equal chance in a court of justice,” Darrow told the audience. “You’ve got to have money if you want a fair break in a court today. People never get money working — that’s why I’ve been a lawyer — and what chance does a colored man have to get enough money to prepare the defense demanded in a modern court?”
Directly addressing blacks in the audience, Darrow said: “You are good enough to cook the dinner in the kitchen, but you cannot come into the dining room and eat it. You cannot come into the parlor and sit with the whites.
“Oh, yes, you can, your women are welcome — if she is nursing a white baby. A colored woman cannot ride in a Pullman car, unless she is nursing a white baby. It doesn’t matter whose baby it is, as long as it is white.”
Darrow drolly told black listeners that the only place in American society where they truly were accepted as equal or better was during war.
“You could fight in the same trench with the white man — you could go in front of him if you wanted to,” he said.
Directly addressing whites in the audience, Darrow condemned “stupid, brutal, ignorant prejudice,” and ridiculed the Ku Klux Klan for championing a “superior race.”
“I am of the opinion that there is no race but the all-inclusive human race,” he said.
In fact, there is no white color, he said. “Our pigmentation comes in a hundred different shades, and none is white. There are more shades in the white people than there are in the black people.”
Darrow’s words were beyond controversial in 1928, but the audience interrupted the lecture frequently with applause and laughter.
“Darrow’s speech was not all in serious vein,” the Akron Times-Press noted. “His dry, sarcastic humor broke into it many times. His cynical, plain-spoken wit had its effect. He was cheered vociferously as he returned to his seat.”
Here are some of Darrow’s other observations in Akron:
• “It’s not a question of what the whites have done for the Negro. It’s a question of what the whites have done to the Negro. I am not here to enlighten the white people. I could never have any such ambition as that.”
• “Is there a white God and a Jim Crow God? Is there a white heaven and a black heaven? Is there a white hell and a Jim Crow hell?”
• “The white man’s treatment of the Negro often is amusing to an unbiased observer. He will not eat at the same table with a Negro but the Negro prepares his food.”
• “Eventually, it will be realized by all that the world is kin and that whether men descended from Adam and Eve or were evolved from lower life forms, men of color or nationality are true blood brothers, the same essentially, however different they may appear.”
After the speech, the auditorium emptied and the capacity crowd went its separate ways, returning to a world that often saw things in black and white.
Darrow went back to Chicago where he lived in retirement for another 10 years. He died of heart disease March 13, 1938, a month shy of his 81st birthday.
His words from a decade earlier echoed in Akron.
In his concluding remarks in 1928, Darrow challenged Akron’s white population to strive for equality and justice in America: “You brought the black man here against his will from Africa. You made a slave of him. You turned him free in an alien land. Now you scorn him. What are you going to do about it?”
Darrow then confided to black listeners: “It is a long, cruel fight the colored race faces. Its pleasure cannot come in this generation. This generation must find its happiness in the glory of those who will come after it.”
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.