Tragedy in Birmingham
Remembering the 1921 slaying of Father James E. Coyle
This original article appeared in Columbia Magazine, March 2010 and is re-printed with the permission of the Knights of Columbus, New Haven Connecticut.
Father James E. Coyle courageously spoke against anti-Catholic prejudice in the South. (Bill Fex Collection, Birmingham, Alabama)
Father James E. Coyle, an extraordinary priest and Knight of Columbus in the early 20th century, courageously stood up against widely-held anti-Catholic views at the risk, and then cost, of his life.
The Irish-born priest was scarcely in his 20s when, after his ordination in Rome, he was dispatched to Alabama to begin his priesthood. The Catholic population in Alabama had exploded with a promise of jobs, especially in and around Birmingham’s network of coal mines, steel mills and iron foundries. Father Coyle arrived in the city shortly before a wave of anti-Catholicism flooded the country, and the revived Ku Klux Klan (KKK) rebranded itself as a “patriotic” fraternity, targeting blacks, Catholics, Jews and foreigners.
It was a tense time in America, and fear of the new immigrants gripped more than a small band of hysterics. A number of states passed “convent inspection laws,” which authorized the warrantless search of convents, monasteries and even Catholic hospitals. Investigators looked for Protestant women and children purportedly being held against their will and for weapons and ammunition the Knights of Columbus had supposedly stashed there. Knights were plotting an insurrection, the fear-mongers said. They were the pope’s secret foot soldiers and could never be “true Americans.”
Against these baseless accusations, Father Coyle defended the faith and the Order, becoming a lightning rod for attacks. Federal agents warned Bishop Edward Allen of Mobile, Ala., of threats against Father Coyle’s life and of plans to burn his church to the ground.
Then, on Aug. 11, 1921, Rev. Edwin R. Stephenson, a Methodist minister and Klansman, stepped onto the porch of St. Paul’s rectory with a loaded handgun. About an hour earlier, Father Coyle had officiated the wedding of Rev. Stephenson’s 18-year-old daughter, Ruth, to Pedro Gussman, a Catholic migrant from Puerto Rico. Like many other Klansmen, Rev. Stephenson despised Catholics. When he learned that Father Coyle had married his daughter to Gussman, he was livid. He shot the priest in cold blood, and Father Coyle died within minutes.
The climate for bringing Rev. Stephenson to justice could not have been worse. A veteran prosecutor spent weeks trying to convince a grand jury to return an indictment, and when it finally did, the Klan ran a statewide drive to raise funds to hire a young lawyer named Hugo Black to lead Rev. Stephenson’s defense. Black would later be elected to the U.S. Senate and appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Klan’s presence at Rev. Stephenson’s October 1921 trial was manifest. Historians would later report that the jury foreman and the presiding judge were both Klansmen. Hugo Black himself would join the ranks of the KKK less than two years later to forward his own political aspirations.
On the eve of trial, Rev. Stephenson’s lawyers announced they would amend his plea to “not guilty by reason of insanity” to permit the argument that Rev. Stephenson was not responsible for his actions after he learned Father Coyle had married Ruth to Pedro. The minister and his wife both claimed that “the Catholics” had tried to seduce Ruth away from her Protestant faith; news of their daughter’s marriage was the last straw.
Though little remembered today, Rev. Stephenson’s weeklong trial was a national sensation. Reporters from far-flung cities raced to Birmingham to observe the spectacle. The jury, however, took only a few hours to return their verdict: “Not guilty.”
Catholics in Birmingham have never forgotten the outrage. “It is our hope that the sharing of the life and death of this holy man may promote greater understanding, reconciliation and peace among all of God’s children,” writes James Pinto Jr., a member of Father James E. Coyle Council 9862 and an organizer for the Father James E. Coyle Memorial Project.
Before his death, Father Coyle served as the chaplain of Birmingham (Ala.) Council 635 and was a charter member of Mobile (Ala.) Council 666. He remains a model of faithful and courageous priestly service today.
Click here to see Sharon Davies' new book entitled Rising Road, which relates the true account of the death of Father James E. Coyle.