Today’s guest columnist is Chervis Isom.
Everyone who resides in or near the City of Birmingham is aware of our city’s brutal history relating to race relations between Blacks and Whites and the civil rights struggle by its Black residents against the Jim Crow laws.
But who remembers the hatred and bigotry toward Catholics in the early twentieth century which resulted in the murder of Father James E. Coyle, the Priest of St. Paul’s Catholic Church in downtown Birmingham on August 11, 1921, at a time when immigrants, and particularly Roman Catholic immigrants, were also targets of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as the prejudice and opprobrium of the general public? Interestingly, this year is the one-hundredth anniversary of the murder.
Almost forgotten now is Birmingham’s history of hostility toward and hatred of the tens of thousands of immigrants who came from the south and east of Europe to industrial Birmingham to work in the City’s steel mills, coal mines and other industries. The Klan was a powerful force, politically and otherwise, in the early part of the twentieth century, and its hostility extended to the large number of immigrants, mostly Roman Catholic, who flocked to the industrial areas of Birmingham and its surrounding mining camps.
The hatred and distrust of Catholics were not limited to Birmingham. Al Smith was the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1928, and his loss of the election was generally attributed to his Catholicism, as many Protestants feared the Pope would dictate his policies.
Thirty years later, in 1959, when John Kennedy was running for the presidency, many people viewed his Catholicism as a disqualification and as an existential threat to the United States and our system of government, based on the fear that a Catholic president would bow to the direction of the Vatican.
I grew up in Birmingham in the late 1940s and ‘50s amid that white supremacy and the prejudice against immigrants, the Italians, Greeks, Jews and Lebanese, almost all of whom were Roman Catholic or Orthodox Catholic or Jewish.
I grew up with that xenophobia within my own family, but over time as I lived among the immigrants in my ethnically diverse neighborhood of Norwood on Birmingham’s northside, the xenophobia with which I was raised dissipated well before I graduated high school, due to my having lived among and attended school with ethnic kids I liked. I also delivered newspapers to ethnic families who uniformly treated me with respect. Moreover, my first girlfriend was an Italian Catholic girl whose family I loved.
In 1963, I was a beginning schoolteacher. I remember one day as I sat at lunch with several other teachers who were all much older than I, the subject of John Kennedy, the President, came up, and they began to express anti-Catholic opinions I found preposterous. One woman expressed with certainty an opinion I’ve never forgotten. She said that John Kennedy would serve two terms, then Bobby would serve two terms and finally Edward would be elected. Then the Vatican would move to America, and we would never again be a free people. I expressed shock and disbelief that anyone could believe such nonsense, but the opinions and attitudes of the others were consistent with hers, as they all denigrated me for my naiveté.
I read a book in 2012, Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America, by Sharon Davies, in which she recites the history of prejudice against Catholics in Birmingham centering on the murder of Father Coyle and the miscarriage of justice that followed. It is a fine book that reads more like a novel than a history.
I recommend that anyone who shares my interest in the history of our city read Davies‘ book and learn about this aspect of our history that is now hard to believe, given the success of generations of our Catholic citizens who now constitute an indivisible part of the bedrock of American society.
Today, our President is a Roman Catholic, as are six members of the US Supreme Court, a powerful testimony that the rampant hatred and distrust of Catholics in the past was misguided and misplaced.
Story of Father Coyle’s murder as I remember it from Davies’ book
Ruth Stephenson and her family resided near St. Paul’s Catholic Church in downtown Birmingham. Her family was Methodist, and her father, Edwin Stephenson, was a Methodist minister who had no church. He usually hung out at the Jefferson County Courthouse where he performed marriages for fees. He, like many men in that era, was a member of the Klan and hated the Catholic Church. Ruth was eighteen and became fascinated by the Catholic Church, and in 1921, became a Catholic.
A few months later, Ruth met Pedro Gussman, a migrant from Puerto Rico who was Roman Catholic. They became engaged to be married and asked Father Coyle, the senior priest of St. Paul’s, to perform the marriage ceremony.
On August 11, 1921, at approximately 10:00 a.m. Father Coyle met the couple at St. Paul’s Catholic Church [now the Cathedral of St. Paul] and recited for them their wedding vows as they stood there, hand in hand, before the altar. Standing apart as witnesses to the occasion were Father Coyle’s sister, who was his housekeeper, and his assistant priest.
Two hours after Father Coyle conducted the wedding, he sat on the swing on the front porch of the rectory next door to the Church reading in the broad daylight at noon. Edwin Stephenson, Ruth’s father, driven by his twisted love and hate, accosted Father Coyle on the porch of the rectory.
If words passed between them, there were only a few, for almost immediately Stephenson pulled his pistol from his pocket and shot Father Coyle three times in rapid succession, apparently oblivious to the fact that several witnesses observed the murder. He then proceeded to the Jefferson County Court House where he turned himself in to the sheriff.
If the murder itself of a Catholic priest by a Methodist minister [and member of the Klan] were not abuse enough for the Catholic community, the trial, in which the judge was a member of the Klan as were several members of the jury, resulted in an acquittal, an outrageous outcome that left the Catholic community in a helpless position in which the law offered little or no support.
In a surprise to me, I learned that counsel for the defendant was Hugo Black, who called as a witness Pedro Gussman, the Puerto Rican husband, described as swarthy, for the sole purpose of exhibiting him in a prejudicial play to the jury, at which time someone dimmed the lights in the Courtroom to make the witness appear darker than his actual complexion.
Hugo Black? The same Hugo Black who became the leading light on the US Supreme Court generations later? Yes, it’s true. While I was deeply disappointed in Hugo Black for the manner of his defense of the murderer, yet his legacy as a Supreme Court justice having written a mountain of brilliant progressive opinions, reminds me that redemption is ever possible in our lives.
As a consequence of my having read Davies’ book, I have attended the annual memorial mass for Father Coyle every year since 2012, excluding last year, the Pandemic year, even though I am not Catholic. And I shall attend this year the special memorial mass for Father Coyle in recognition of the one-hundredth anniversary of his murder.
Please join me at the Cathedral of St. Paul on Wednesday, August 11, at 12:10 pm, in solidarity with our Roman Catholic friends, to recognize the one-hundredth anniversary of the murder of Father Coyle.
Chervis Isom grew up in Birmingham and is a product of its public schools. He graduated from Birmingham-Southern College and Samford’s Cumberland School of Law. He is now retired from the practice of law after a long career. He is the author of The Newspaper Boy: Coming of Age in Birmingham, Alabama During the Civil Rights Era, in which he tells the story of his evolution from the Jim Crow culture. His website is: www.thenewspaperboy.net.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak to your group for free about a better Birmingham. email@example.com.