Skip to comments.Birmingham priest's 1921 slaying revisited in new documentary and book
Posted on 08/02/2011 7:55:11 PM PDT by Coleus
In her book "Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race and Religion in America," Ohio State University law professor Sharon Davies digs deep into the 1921 slaying of a Catholic priest in Birmingham. The Rev. James E. Coyle, who had been pastor of St. Paul's Cathedral since 1904, was shot to death on the porch of the wood-frame rectory, the priest's house next to the cathedral, on Aug. 11, 1921.
"There are so many things about this story that are really compelling," Davies said. She said she stumbled across the case while doing research for a law journal article. "When I found it, I was absolutely captivated by it. This story needed to be told. We can't afford to forget this."
The murder trial was historic, partly because of the role played by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. Black defended the accused killer, the Rev. Edwin R. Stephenson, who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan paid the legal expenses of Stephenson, who was acquitted by a jury that included several Klan members, including the jury foreman, Davies said.
"The Klan held enormously successful fundraising drives across Alabama to raise money for the defense," Davies said. "They portrayed it as a Methodist minister father who shot a Catholic priest trying to steal his daughter away from her religion, to seduce his daughter into the Catholic Church."
Stephenson, who conducted weddings at the Jefferson County Courthouse, was accused of gunning down Coyle after becoming irate over Coyle's officiating at the marriage of Stephenson's daughter, Ruth, to a Puerto Rican, Pedro Gussman. The release of "Rising Road" by Oxford University Press comes at the same time as an Irish documentary highlighting the case.
Filmmaker Pat Shine of Ireland, grandnephew of Coyle, recently visited Birmingham to film a documentary about the case. Shine's film began airing on national public television in Ireland on March 21.
As defense attorney, Black had Gussman summoned into the courtroom and questioned him about his curly hair and skin color. Lights were dimmed in the courtroom so the darkness of Gussman's complexion would be accentuated, said an Oct. 20, 1921, newspaper account of the final day of the trial. Black gained an acquittal.
"That really does illustrate, beautifully and awfully, the lengths that this future Supreme Court justice was willing to go to in defense of a killer," Davies said. "It only worked because it exploited the bigotries of the day, anti-Catholicism and racism."
Black joined the Klan 18 months after the trial, Davies said. Years later Black renounced his Klan ties and became one of the most liberal members of the U.S. Supreme Court. After the acquittal, Stephenson once again was a regular at the courthouse, conducting marriages.
"For awhile after the trial, he was a hero," Davies said. "He was the Klan's champion, celebrated at Klan initiation ceremonies." But Stephenson never made amends with his daughter, who divorced Gussman, moved to Chicago and died of tuberculosis in 1931 at age 28. "She was their only child," Davies said. "I'm sure that was a grievous wound for them."
Gussman was killed on Valentine's Day 1934 in a hit-and-run accident steps away from where Coyle was killed, in front of St. Paul's Cathedral. "They never found the person who hit him," Davies said. People don't grasp today the level of anti-Catholic bigotry that was rampant in America at the time of Coyle's slaying, Davies said.
The state Legislature enacted the Alabama Convent Inspection law in 1919 to authorize officials without a warrant to search convents to see whether any person found inside the convent was being "involuntarily confined" or "unlawfully held," Davies said.
"My students laugh," Davies said. "They can't believe these laws existed. State legislatures were convinced they needed these laws to protect against the Catholic threat." There was a fear Protestant girls would be kidnapped, forced to become Catholic nuns and held against their will, Davies said.
The Coyle case played into those fears because Ruth, as an independent-minded 18-year-old, had converted to Catholicism against the will of her father. Coyle debated those who spread the Ku Klux Klan attacks against Catholics, and federal officials at one point warned Coyle's bishop that Coyle had been the target of death threats, Davies said.
"There were threats to burn the church to the ground," she said. "This was a time when lectures and sermons were routinely given from pulpits across Birmingham that spewed anti-Catholicism." Anti-Catholicism became a key plank of the Ku Klux Klan.
"The Klan had expanded to attacking Catholics, Jews and foreigners, along with blacks," Davies said. "It rebranded as a patriotic organization that existed to defend the flag, the Constitution and the American way of life that the Klan said was under attack by Catholics who owed their allegiance to a foreign leader, the pope."
Davies, a former prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan, said she was encouraged that the prosecutor in the murder trial, Joe Tate, pushed forward even though the odds were stacked against the prosecution.
"They had a judge that was making all kinds of rulings that were indefensible, such as excluding an eyewitness that refuted everything Stephenson said happened on the porch between him and the priest. It was an uphill battle."
The racist impulses exploited by the young defense attorney in 1921 were later curbed with the help of Supreme Court decisions in which Hugo Black played a key role, such as the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka decision overturning school segregation and the 1967 Loving vs. Virginia case overturning Virginia's ban on interracial marriage. Black served as a U.S. senator from Alabama from 1927-37, and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1937-71.
"It's a good thing to remember where he began," Davies said. "It gives us a greater appreciation for where he ended up. It reflected the movement of the nation."
Davies will be discussing her book at the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery, April 17 at 12:30 p.m.; in Mobile at McGill-Toolen High School, where Coyle was the first rector, on May 3 at 7 p.m., and at the Birmingham Public Library on June 22 at 6:30 p.m. in the Arrington Auditorium, Linn-Henley Research Library.
Davies should try posting on FR sometime, then.
Somehow I doubt it will be “fair and balanced”.
Someone else to pile onto the pity wagon....geez
Aaaand welcome, welcome. Put your thinking caps on. Its time for another game uuuv. NAME THAT PARTY!
Its the 1920’s. The Klux Klan is wildly popular, and quite powerful, (you see they had friends in high places). Blacks, Jews, and Catholics, feared daily for their safety lest they be strung up by the wonderful members of this party. Hugo Black, much like Robert Byrd is beloved by members of this party. Ok. NAME THAT PARTY!
Your time is up.
I heard that a Catholic Priest was murdered by the KuKluxKlan in the twenties, but never knew the backstory. Very interesting.
Thomas Nast, the political cartoonist who defeated Boss Tweed, also hated Catholics/the Catholic Church and drew accordingly.
Thanks for posting.
BTW, I’d be interested in finding out why Ruth and Pedro divorced, and whether or not she remained a Catholic.
Yes, it’s pretty remarkable...the move through the KKK to the Dem Party and “being the most liberal justice” seemed to be a pretty smooth one. And Black was certainly not the only example of this.