For the past year, Catholics have been celebrating the “Year for Priests,” making it a fitting time to recall the sacrifices of priests, both now and in the nation’s past. 

One such sacrifice was the brutal slaying of Father James Coyle on a hot summer day in Birmingham, Ala., at a time when extreme anti-Catholic views poisoned discourse and daily life in America. 

Late in the afternoon of Aug. 11, 1921, Father Coyle, an outspoken defender of the Faith in a hostile atmosphere, was sitting on the porch of the rectory of St. Paul Catholic Church in Birmingham when the Rev. Edwin R. Stephenson, a Methodist minister and member of the Ku Klux Klan, walked up the steps with a loaded handgun. About an hour earlier, Father Coyle had officiated the wedding of Stephenson’s 18-year-old daughter, Ruth, to Pedro Gussman, a Catholic migrant from Puerto Rico. 

Like many other members of the Klan of the 1920s, Stephenson had despised Catholics. The marriage of his daughter to a Catholic man threatened to sever the control he exercised over Ruth and her religious training. The minister was furious when he heard the news. 

The accounts of what happened next would differ somewhat, but all agreed that the minister pulled his gun, aimed it at the priest and started firing. One of his bullets plowed into Father Coyle’s left temple and exploded out the back of his skull. The priest was raced to St. Vincent’s Hospital nearby, but his wound was too severe. Father Coyle died within minutes. 

The shooting of Father Coyle took place in broad daylight, and a good number of witnesses were able later to identify Stephenson as the killer. It also quickly became clear that the priest had had no weapon to defend himself against Stephenson’s attack. As the apparent motive for the crime sank in, early press coverage of the crime suggested that Methodists and Catholics alike were appalled by the minister’s act, as major newspapers in cities across the country spread news of the violence in Birmingham over the marriage of a Protestant woman to a Catholic man. 

Klan involvement 

Despite these reports, however, the climate in Birmingham began to sour quickly for Joseph Tate, the local prosecutor charged with the responsibility of bringing the minister to justice. First, the grand jury was uncharacteristically slow in returning an indictment. After weeks of feet-dragging, when the grand jurors finally charged the minister, they refused to indict him for first-degree murder, returning an indictment for murder in the second degree instead. 

Not long after, a committee of Klansmen organized a statewide fundraising drive to pay for Stephenson’s defense, and a talented young lawyer named Hugo Black agreed to lead the defense team. Black, of course, was destined for a very accomplished legal career. Five years after Stephenson’s trial, Black was elected to the U.S. Senate; 11 years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1921, however, he was still making a name for himself. 

Nearing trial, the tension in Birmingham mounted. Shortly after a judge ordered Stephenson held over for trial, Birmingham’s Chief of Police T.J. Shirley, also a Klansman, ordered his men to arrest Pedro Gussman on an out-of-state murder charge. Although the groom was soon released after it was proved that he could not have been the culprit, the pressures caused by Gussman’s arrest, and the intense publicity surrounding the case, led to the abrupt breakup of his and Ruth’s marriage. 

Atmosphere of hate 

With the benefit of hindsight, it is perhaps easier to understand the uphill battle the prosecutors of Stephenson faced. The trial took place at a time of extreme anti-Catholicism; Stephenson had not been alone in wanting Father Coyle dead. 

Father Coyle had been born and raised in Ireland. He completed his theological studies in Rome. Immediately after his ordination, he was dispatched to Mobile, Ala., to begin his priesthood, scarcely in his 20s. The numbers of Catholics in the state had multiplied, particularly in Birmingham with the promise of jobs in its complex of coal mines, steel mills and iron foundries. In 1904, Bishop Edward Allen of Mobile sent Father Coyle to Birmingham to head St. Paul. He arrived in the city just as a wave of anti-Catholicism was about to sweep the country. 

The priest found himself in the unenviable and dangerous position of having to defend the Knights of Columbus against accusations that its members were the secret foot soldiers of the pope ready to do his bidding. Many looked dimly on the large numbers of immigrants streaming into the states, with their foreign ways and dangerous religious beliefs. Before the shooting, Father Coyle had become the best-known spokesman for the Catholic community in the state. 

During his years in Birmingham, Father Coyle discovered that the new Catholic arrivals were only scarcely tolerated by many of the city’s “native whites.” Without apology, Catholics were run out of public office, and anti-Catholic propaganda spilled from every city newsstand. After World War I, matters worsened. Demands for “100 percent Americanism” were heard across the country, and the patriotism of Catholics was attacked on the reasoning that they owed their allegiance to the foreign pope. 

During this period, Catholics had learned to keep their heads low. But Father Coyle refused to be cowed, courageously defending his parishioners and his faith again and again. For his troubles he had become a lightning rod for Protestant attacks. Federal agents intercepted threats on Father Coyle’s life and plans to burn St. Paul to the ground, and they warned the bishop in Mobile. 

Faced with such dangers, it must have taken great courage for Father Coyle to continue to speak up. But he did, even when his parishioners were content to stay quiet. But every letter he wrote to the local papers in answer to some slur made on his faith was met with a flurry of foul replies, until he was silenced once and for all by Stephenson’s gun. 

Defense shenanigans 

Stephenson’s trial took place in October 1921, and the Klan’s presence at the trial was palpable. Historians would later report that the foreman of the jury was a Klansman, and the presiding judge as well. Black himself would take the Klan’s solemn vow of eternal membership less than two years later. 

Under Black’s leadership, the defense team devised a trial strategy aimed at two of the hooded order’s top targets: Catholics and blacks. On the eve of trial, the defense team announced that Stephenson would amend its plea to add a claim of “not guilty by reason of insanity,” a plea designed to allow his attorneys to introduce evidence that Stephenson had lost all control over his actions after he learned that Father Coyle had married Ruth to Gussman. For years “the Catholics” had tried to seduce Ruth away from her true Protestant faith, Stephenson and his wife railed at trial, and news of their daughter’s marriage to the Catholic Gussman had finally pushed him beyond reason. 

Perhaps it will be little surprise that aside from hoping that the jurors’ anti-Catholic bigotry would lead them to acquit, the defense appealed to race as well. Despite widespread local acceptance that Pedro Gussman had been socially regarded by his friends and neighbors in Birmingham as “white,” with Black’s prompting, Stephenson also claimed at trial that he considered Gussman to be “a Negro,” an accusation aimed at justifying the shooting by exploiting the most virulent racial prejudice of the day. Black interrupted his client’s testimony to have Gussman marched into the courtroom. Before doing so, Black pulled the shades of the courtroom low, to enhance the groom’s tanned complexion, one reporter thought. 

In short, in a climate in which racial and religious bigotry was nourished and legitimated by laws prohibiting interracial marriage and authorizing warrantless searches of Catholic institutions, the trial strategy encouraged the jury not only to forgive Stephenson’s act, but to celebrate it: Far from a mentally impaired reprobate, Stephenson was the community’s champion. After a weeklong trial, the jury took only hours to acquit. 

Sharon Davies is a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law and the author of “Rising Road, A True Tale of Love, Race and Religion in America” (Oxford University Press, $27.95).

In Remembrance

To this day, the Catholic community in Birmingham has kept the memory of their courageous, fallen priest alive. More details on his life and death can be found at the Father James Coyle Memorial Project, www.fathercoyle.org.