Sharon Davies, Oxford University Press, 352 pages, $27.95
In 1954, Hugo Black joined his fellow Supreme Court justices in outlawing racial segregation in American schools in the unanimous, landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education. There is, indeed, as Reinhold Niebuhr might put it, irony in American history.
The invocation of Niebuhr is appropriate, since he was a strident critic of the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the post-World War I United States: Thirty years before he ruled for racial equality, Black had joined the Klan in Alabama and was shortly thereafter elected to the U.S. Senate, his steppingstone to the Supreme Court. Earlier yet, Black was a defense attorney in Birmingham, and it is there that our story unfolds.
In large measure a historical courtroom drama, Rising Road documents one of the most sensational crimes and trials in Alabama history: the murder of the pastor of Birmingham’s St. Paul’s Catholic Church, Rev. James Coyle. “Murder” is the wrong term in a strictly legal sense, as Coyle’s killer was acquitted by a jury of his peers. This acquittal, however, as Sharon Davies convincingly argues, was a manifestly unjust decision based on prejudices and passions rather than on a fair weighing of evidence and consideration of the law.
Father Coyle was a dedicated and sometimes combative Irish priest who served the mostly immigrant, small-but-growing Catholic population of Birmingham in the opening decades of the 20th century. In 1921, Ruth Stephenson, the daughter of a Methodist minister, eloped with her Catholic spouse, a Puerto Rico-born workingman named Pedro Gussman. Ruth’s earlier interest in and eventual conversion to Catholicism had earned stern rebukes and even physical abuse from her father, Edwin Stephenson. Her marriage was the last straw: Stephenson accosted the marriage’s presiding priest, Father Coyle, on the front porch of the rectory, and ended the cleric’s life with a bullet through his head.
Historians like to talk about “intersections.” They are here in multitude: law and religion, sex and race, to name a couple. Davies handles this material adroitly, mercifully avoiding any pauses to invoke esoteric theories or historiographical debates about such matters. Instead, she tells the story — a riveting one — and permits the reader to make the logical inferences and connections to broader themes of religion and race in American culture.
There are three minor flaws in Davies’s storytelling. For one, she is obviously more at home in a legal than in a religious environment, a fact that occasionally shows when she strikes not quite the right tone concerning things Catholic. Father Coyle’s Gothic church, she writes, was “so majestic that it would soon be declared a cathedral,” seemingly unaware that the status of cathedral bears no necessary relationship to a building’s architectural merits but is bestowed when the church houses the chair of the local bishop.
The second weakness of the narrative derives from one of its strengths, taken too far. Davies labors to set the context of each episode, supplying details, for example, of the economic history of Birmingham, of the physical appearance of the courtroom, or of the contemporary state of police interrogation techniques. Occasionally, however, the context-setting is excessive, obstructing the narrative flow. When we learn that one of the witnesses of Father Coyle’s murder was distracted by another citizen cranking the starter of his car, do we really need to know further that Charles Kettering had invented the electrical starter some years earlier?
Finally, although Davies maintains a laudably even and objective tone throughout most of the book, she at times lapses into sarcastic commentary in the form of parenthetical remarks. After delivering an elaborate tale to try to exonerate himself, Stephenson is asked how many shots he fired. “I couldn’t tell,” he answers, and Davies adds, “(Not when having to remember so much else!).” This is unnecessary. The facts of the case as she relates them will lead every careful and fair-minded reader to the conclusions Davies wishes us to draw. We needn’t be thumped over the head with the point.
These peccadilloes notwithstanding, Davies has performed a signal service by bringing to light these events, which had gone largely unnoticed by scholars of American religious and legal history. Her skillful reconstruction of the strange and terrible happenings that Birmingham summer portrays a time and setting that are, thankfully, unfamiliar to most of us. There was no question that Edwin Stephenson shot and killed Father Coyle. There was little doubt that he did it in cold blood. And yet the jury could not return a guilty verdict, even on the charge of murder in the second degree.
In Davies’s telling, the reason was obvious: a combination of religious and racial prejudice. Black, attorney for the defense, made transparent attempts to capitalize on the biases of the twelve white men in whose hands the fate of the trial lay. He called in Gussman to be viewed by the jury, drawing attention to his swarthy complexion and casting doubt on his Spanish heredity. Though Gussman’s “whiteness” had never been questioned and had been confirmed in law (otherwise he’d never have received a license to marry a white woman), Black successfully evoked fears of miscegenation, a threat without parallel in white Alabama in the 1920s. Black also played on anti-Catholic sentiment, emphasizing the Catholic connections of key witnesses and thereby insinuating that their testimony was dubious.
So Stephenson went free. The murder of the prominent priest went unpunished. The Gussmans’ marriage disintegrated under the stress. And Black went on to bigger things, among them a role in the Supreme Court’s most famous civil-rights decision. Protestants and Catholics learned to get along, with many good results for the nation. The kind of unpleasantness Davies recounts is, blessedly, behind us.
Or is it? As I write, a young woman is in Florida, amidst a months-long legal dispute with her Ohio parents. The girl converted to Christianity from Islam and claims that she fears for her physical safety if she is reunited with her family. It would be difficult and probably unhelpful to try to draw a workable analogy between this case and the Coyle-Stephenson affair, but the contemporary example does highlight an important point. Maintaining a peaceful social order in a situation of religious and ethnic pluralism — with its attendant tensions, strife, and even violence — remains a challenge to be confronted, not a victory already achieved.