Historic hatred of Birmingham Catholics ends in murder

Chervis Isom (Photo by Hugh Hunter)

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.   

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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. dsher@amsher.com.

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44 thoughts on “Historic hatred of Birmingham Catholics ends in murder”

  1. Thank you for reminding everyone of this horrible incident, Chervis. The book is excellent, as is yours! We can do so much better than hating people because of their race, religion, beliefs!

    1. Yes. The influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants about a century ago impacted the culture and values of the Birmingham area so that it is less typical of Alabama and the South and more like one of the Northern industrial cities. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Thank you for this story.

    2. Thanks much, Terry. I enjoyed your article very much, as I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read which flowed from your pen.
      Unfortunately, I grew up without an inkling of those restaurants in Birmingham, though I grew up here. My family almost never ate outside our home. The one spot that comes to my mind is Ed Salem’s Drive in on 26th Street North, our neighborhood hangout where everyone hung out except for me. But in college at BSC, I discovered Carnaggio’s at Midfield. That’s where I occasionally took a date when I could afford it. And Constatine’s on Lomb Avenue at 5 Points W. I’m honored to share the Comeback platform with you.

      1. For those who may be interested in early Birmingham history I suggest you take a look at my book “Life and Death in the Magic City: A Coroner’s Perspective of Jefferson County, Alabama in the Early 20th Century.”

  2. Thank you Chervis for keeping our history alive. Only by remembering the past are we able to redeem the future.

    Catholics, Protestants and Jews, Eastern Europeans, formerly enslaved Africans, the Irish, Italians and Greeks physically built Birmingham, and the entire USA for that matter. Except for Native Americans, we all came here on different paths, for different reasons and some certainly against their will,

    The USA became the greatest nation in history because our doors were open to all who had the moxie to make the USA their home. In uncertain times, it is good to remember this.

    1. Thanks so much, Maury. It’s good to hear from you, and good to hear your point of view which coincides with my own. I believe in immigration and think the US would benefit from another wave of immigration much like that of 1885 – 1924 when millions of people came to this country with nothing but courage , hope and optimism. We need those kind of people now, the kind of people who would walk a thousand miles in hope to have a shot of coming here.

  3. When my catholic family moved here from Ohio in the 50’s where his birth family at times would find burning crosses in their front yard, he noticed a sign posted on the Bessemer highway that read ” the Ku Klux Klan welcomes you”. He was dismayed to see this and only associated this with hatred toward catholics and not blacks. He soon was informed and together with the priest who was serving at St. Aloysuis at the time had it removed by Bessemer.
    BTW, a priest at St. Aloysuis was father Frank Coyle who was a nephew on the murdered priest at St. Paul’s

    1. Thanks, Mary, for your note. Yes, I too was aware of that welcome sign posted by the KKK . I saw it a hundred times, posted among the welcome signs of various civic clubs.
      I did not know Father Coyle’s nephew was the priest of St. Aloysius. How interesting. Thanks again.

  4. Birmingham is infamous for its poor treatment of ethic, religious, and racial minorities. What else is new? How the Greeks have managed to control the restaurant industry for almost a century is amazing. I guess the W.A.S.P.s just liked good food.

  5. Should anyone reading this think somehow that we aught to erase history, I would strongly say no. Why? Because, not knowing this we would have no idea about what strength it has taken for the city to get beyond that horrible time, and look forward to a better more generous and accepting time. I well remember the wicked presence of KKK. I remember seeing a cross burned beside Highway 31 south as it reached the top of Shades Mountain so all the world could see. My seeing that was not planned but purely happenstance coincidental. But is memorably awful. To me it was more stupid that scary.

    Remember these things but do not let them slow down improvement; rather let them press us on to better and more loving and peaceful times.

      1. Thanks for noticing Chervis. It is interesting to see how many responses there have been to this posting of yours.

  6. Thanks for this reminder of the possibility of change. Changing toward acceptance, kindness and understanding is always possible. Good thing for us all to strive for!
    Ginger Sharbel

    1. Thank you, Ginger. It’s so good to hear from you. Yes, you are so right. Change for the better is always possible. Thank you for your comment and for your support.

  7. The spirit of the KKK lives on and impressionable young children are still being taught to hate other GROUPS who are different in some way. This time, it is our government schools. The course is Critical Race Theory which teaches to hate based solely on skin color. Not exactly what Dr. King wanted us to use as the basis to judge other INDIVIDUALS.

    1. Thank you for your response, Durham, but isn’t it misplaced? I said nothing about Critical Race Theory, whatever that is. The purpose in writing this article is to teach or remind the public that in years past, there was a tremendous discrimination against immigrants in Bham, and particularly Roman Catholics., which resulted in the murder of the Priest of St. Paul’s Church. But the passage of time has blunted that discrimination and now it hardly survives. Our president is Catholic aa are six members of the US Supreme Court, proving that all the prejudice of the past was unjustified. I think that
      part of history should be taught in school, to show the misjudgments of the past and the dangers of discrimination, as well as how we as a society grew beyond such discrimination. History must be taught, the good, the bad and the ugly, or else we will never advance as a society. I’m sorry you misread my article.

  8. Thanks for sharing this sad story of our past.
    I think about Father Coyle often as my office looks down on the spot where he was murdered.

    1. Was I four or five years old? I still remember a little song I learned in Sunday School at Southside Baptist Church: ‘Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white all are lovely in his sight. Jesus loves the children of the world.’ I believed it then and i believe it now. I wish everyone had.

    2. Thanks so much, Emris. Yes, I remember the two of us stood by your window looking down at the Cathedral and the rectory and the courtyard between, and the beautiful view it offers you.
      Yet the pleasing view is blemished by the knowledge that down there on the porch of the rectory a murder occurred one hundred years in the past. Thanks for your note, Emris.

  9. I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s in Birmingham and the KKK was on the spiral downward. My father was not around much, then after my mom divorced him she raised all 4 of us to not judge by skin color or where people were from.
    I started High School at Phillips High in the mid 60’s and integration had started. I played sports and so did many blacks, Italians, Greeks etc. We had virtually no incidents except for occasional name calling by kids that were raised that way and taught hatred by their parents but those incidents were few and far between.
    Unlike the author, I remember a time of healing and the progression of minorities in Birmingham and the surrounding areas. I also remember those that showed that hatred were called out by their peers and educators.
    Now the leftist democrats and educators want to bring race relations back to days of hatred with CRT. It really shows that educators hiring educators doesn’t work.
    We still have much to do to defend what’s right, so get involved and while I understand what the 20’s through the early 60’s was a black eye on many cities including greater Birmingham, the scene now is much improved and the author should have acknowledged that fact imo. We will always have to work to improve, but we will and we will defeat CRT being taught to our kids and we will defeat writers who want us to feel guilt for things that happened years before we were even born.

    1. Thank you for your note, Bill. I too attended PHS and graduated in ’57, about ten years before you. It seems from your note that you had a positive experience concerning integration of the races at Phillips. I graduated before classes were integrated. But my column was not about racial hatred , but hatred toward Roman Catholics in those years [ 1885–1924] when thousands of immigrants came into Bham to work in industry. Most were Roman Catholic and suffered substantial discrimination, both because of the status as immigrants and as Catholics. You state “the scene is much improved and the author should have acknowledged the fact.”
      Read my article again. I said that Catholics now are a part of the bedrock of American society. I also stated that the President of the US is a Roman Catholic as are six members of the US Supreme Court, proving that the discrimination was misplaced . I think the lesson of Father Coyle’s murder is that people who are different from us in some way, their culture, their religion, their complexion, often gives society a reason to discriminate , but time will prove the discrimination was without basis and wrong and ultimately the basis for the discrimination will dry up and blow away.
      You went off on a tangent regarding education that was never raised in my article, but I do believe the anti-Catholic discrimination of the past is a good example to use in teaching of history.

  10. That Marxist “Critical Race Theory” idea is re-running the horror and the fact that it is somehow in reverse appears to be making it as bad as or worse than it ever was! YOU ARE RIGHT Durham Ellis! And what we are witnessing is a terrible decline of the public education system. Dr. King needs to be remembered, and his approach based on Ghandi’s thinking is far more useful and effective. It brought about positive change rather than further endangerment.

      1. Thanks for noting this Chervis. My connection with what Durham had written is this: Correct and fact based, unbiased history, more like what you initally wrote is what is proper and what I support. I do not accept altered or biased history that is the kind I understand to be at the foundation of “Critical Race Theory.’ That is why i respond to Durham as i did. I hope that helps understanding. The results could even be worse that erasing history. It is just wrong.

        1. The study of history with all its ugliness is important for any society to continue an upward trajectory to peaceful and harmonious relations. The Critical Race Theory is not based on altered or biased history. I suspect that all the uproar of CRT is based on a realistic view of the conditions in the South before the Civil War and the causes of the war. I’m aware that many people believe the war was fought over various theories, but the rock-bottom reason was continued slavery. I grew up in Birmingham. My great-great grandfather was captured at Spottsyvania, VA and died in a Delaware prison camp. His wife and two small children in SC were burned out by Sherman’s army, and my Great-great grandmother died leaving two orphans. That’s my legacy from the war. I’m bitter as hell about my legacy, but not at the Union. I’m bitter at our leaders who got us into the war and didn’t have sense enough to surrender on July 4, 1863 when both Gettysburg and Vicksburg were lost, which was the turning point of no return. Two more years of war and famine and destruction, leaving the South in ruins. I don’t want to see any statues of Jefferson Davis., and I deny there is any rich heritage that my family received from that “Lost Cause.” Maybe the rich planters had something to come home to, but others lost everything including their lives. If teaching the truth of the Civil War and the causes of it are “altered or biased history,” then we have a fundamental disagreement.

          1. Individuals who say that “Critical Race Theory” (it’s just history, dammit) should be overlooked and not taught confuse me. To ignore what the Spanish, Portuguese, British, and later “Americans,” did to indigenous Americans and enslaved Africans as a matter of history (without editorial comment) is the same as ignoring what the German “Nazi” governments did to eastern and western Europe. Should we not continue to mention the concentration camps because it makes the Germans today look bad? It is taught in Germany today as a “Never Again” standpoint. Why can’t White Americans not handle the open expression of historic abuses against Native Americans and enslaved Africans as a simple statement of history not to be repeated. Are today’s children such snowflakes that they cannot learn from history in order not to repeat it and accept that our ancestors were not perfect marble statue gods?

          2. I completely understand and agree with what you have written. It well overlaps and extends what I just sent.

          3. Karl, I agree with you. The history must be taught, the bad with the good. See my response above to Roy Knight. I think so many people here in the South are paranoid in believing that we must continue to teach that there were other reasons for the Civil War than slavery, and that the war effort was noble and a Lost Cause.
            They believe that there is some honor that should be accorded our leaders. I believe otherwise. The facts of history must be taught, not the misconceived history so long taught in the South.
            Thank you for your note.

          4. Actually all three of us agree. Chervis I think you have just misinterpreted my posting that you responded to. We do agree about history. Another group not o be left out BTW: different but never mentioned, yet quite different: the indentured slaves. As you just said, there were many different causes of the Civil War. We should know all of them. We also need to know the long lasting damage it did and how that damage happened. All of it including the remaining issues of today. The terrible history of who I am tempted to call the power hungry opportunist user and promoter of racism George Wallace. We must not erase that history or just get ‘theoretical’ about it. Theories are unproven. History is evidence.

          5. Thank you again. What you wrote is true history and needs to be remembered. It is NOT ‘theory!’ It is not biased. It is not racism in reverse, but it is actual information. I truly respect and appreciate that, your family’s history. Mine is similar, though Protestant.

            I recently read a book about Alabama History that I found very interesting, written by former director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History. If you have not read that I strongly recommend doing so. It is not all nice and rosy. I learned much that I had not known before. Alabama : ‘The Making of an American State.’
            by Edwin C. Bridges

            ‘If we do not know our history, we may be forced to relive it!’ George Santayana, Philosopher, and others as well. And we may miss the sense of confidence that might be received when we know what we have survived. That surely can help us improve the quality of our society.

  11. I have read the book. It’s quite good. There was a video that was shot in Alabama re-enacting the case. Local actors like John Falkenburg were in it. It was shown only on Irish TV. I tried the link, and it no longer functions (I used it in a class I taught “Civil Rights and Justice” at Birmingham-Southern.) The name of the video is “A Cross in Alabama.”

    1. Thank you, Natalie. It’s good to hear from you. I was not aware of the video re-enacting the case. Thanks for informing me. Hope you are enjoying retirement. I retired from my law practice last month.

  12. Chervis, (now retired, but one of the best real estate lawyers in Alabama),

    Outstanding job! I really appreciated you writing that article. Your English teachers at BSC did a great job teaching you to write.

    As a Roman Catholic, I was aware of the story of Fr. Coyle and the coming 100th Anniversary of his death. There has been a group of folks who have done a great job keeping Fr. Coyle’s memory alive, including the late John Wright. I believe Birmingham has moved light years ahead, but we still have a ways to go.

    My next venture is to fulfill Dave Sher’s request and write a positive article on Homewood!!

    1. John, it’s so good to hear from you. Thank you for your positive comments. You mention John Wright, Jr. He was a good friend of mine. I loved John’s enthusiasm for life and pushing people to be better people. I remember what may have been one of his last endeavors. He passed out bumper stickers which read simply –“Be Kind.” He even spoke to City Council asking for an endorsement. I also followed his acting career here in Bham in community theatre productions. Thanks, John, for your note.

  13. Thanks Chervis for the insightful story and reminder. Hugo Black’s defense of a shameful murder is one of the confusing ironies of history. I choose to believe that you are correct in explaining it as a redemption story. We all harbor prejudices of some sort. I have worked on mine for many years and still have work to do, but that work makes the world a better place.

  14. I moved to Huntsville in 2001 and was amazed to read references to “Christians and Catholics” in columns and editorials. Twenty years later, I still run across that reference. Catholics aren’t Christians? Members of the other Christian denominations need to review the lineage of their churches.

    1. Thank you, Ron. You are so right. So many people in the South think in the pattern you describe. Yes , it is wrong. And I think it grows out of that discrimination of long ago when Catholics and their churches were regarded as “different’ than the traditional Protestant churches they were familiar with.
      If we were able to find ourselves in 1921 in Bham, I think we would find an attitude among protestant church people toward Roman Catholics perhaps not unlike many people in 2021 carry toward Muslims. And it may well be in 2121, Muslims may be as common and accepted as Roman Catholics in 2021. Who knows? The unknown is reason enough for fear and fear becomes discrimination.

  15. Another interesting read is ‘Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America.’
    by David Hackett Fischer

    It is all about migration in four movements to America, and the nature of lives or normal day to day living working people. No emphasis on heroes or celebrities of any other kind

    1. Thank you, Roy, for all your comments. My family, like yours, was Protestant. My wife and I attend a Baptist Church. I wrote the article because I was affected by the anti-Catholic rhetoric that I grew up with while living in a neighborhood with many Catholics whom I regarded as friends. As a newspaper boy, I delivered newspapers to a special family, the Millers, who took the time to counsel me about the racism with which I grew up. They were the finest of people, and I learned they were Catholics, members of St. Paul’s. They put me on a path of evolution in my thinking and ultimate rejection of Jim Crow attitudes. I developed an admiration of Catholics at a time when people thought the election of John Kennedy was the beginning of the end of American democracy, and that he would invite the Pope to America to run our affairs. Pure ignorance at work. Thank you for mentioning the vbooks. I’ll check into them.

      1. It is true. I well remember that fear of the Pope when Kennedy was campaigning. The question should not have been about his religion but the likely quality of his ability to be President. He did win. And as you well pointed out, Many more have been elected or appointed to important positions since. As President, he did many good things, in spite of … well I won’t go into that stuff! But that is history too, if not continuing speculation only.

  16. You might consider this ‘off-track’ but I just had an idea for honoring Fr. Coyle. As it happens I know about pipe organs and have played recitals in former days. Recently I checked to see what some of my favorites. One for whom I tried to sell in Alabama, builder was Fritz Nowak. He is retired but his continuing excellent company has kept building and by now might be installing one of their largest right there in St. Paul’s.
    I hope it is not too late, but how would it be to honor Fr. Coyle by dedicating it in his memory?

  17. I had almost forgotten that there used to be discrimination against Catholics. Thanks for the reminder! My beloved nephew who is my age had the same name as my father. He was raised as a Catholic. We even both played the violin. And of course, during my many years as a Biology teacher, almost all of my students were either Jewish or Catholic. Even closer to home, my youngest daughter, whose grandmother was a Catholic, was herself raised as a Catholic. Hopefully we can someday completely rid ourselves of all such prejudice.

    1. Thanks, Millie, for your note. Growing up in NJ and living there most of your life among Catholics saved you from the prejudice of the South where Catholics were few in number. Except in Birmingham, where almost all the Catholics were immigrants who came to work in coal mines and in the steel industry. The four years you spent in Nashville for college probably did not expose you to the raw prejudice I saw in my hometown, particularly as John Kennedy ran for the presidency and after he was elected. How many times I heard, “this country is going to hell in a handbasket. The Pope will be calling the shots. We’re done.” When Kennedy was assissinated it seems to me that the verbal abuse stopped.
      I admire you for teaching all those years. Take care of yourself.

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