Review: Rising Road
Sharon Davies. Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 327 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-537979-2.
On August 11, 1921, Father James Coyle, priest of Birmingham, Alabama’s St. Paul’s Catholic Church, was shot and killed on St. Paul’s rectory porch in broad daylight. This murder represented a notorious case of injustice that had been historiographically overshadowed by the Red Scare turmoil and the period’s many other sensational trials (Sacco and Vanzetti, The Chicago “Black Sox,” John T. Scopes). In Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America, Sharon Davies, a professor of law at Ohio State University, gives the Coyle case the attention it deserved. Rising Road does not advance a thesis, but it does capture in rich detail the irrational and complex interplay among race, religion, and “otherness” in the post-World War I Jim Crow South.
Catholics were a distinct and self-conscious minority in Birmingham. They were tolerated when Coyle first arrived in Birmingham in 1904, but new European immigration complicated the South’s racial order and threatened religious tolerance. By World War I, anti-Catholicism marked local politics with a secret society calling itself the True Americans and the Ku Klux Klan inflaming religious prejudice. Rather than shrink from public view, however, Coyle took up a vigorous defense of his faith. He responded to overt examples of religious prejudice with sarcastic, mocking, and defensive letters to the editor. He generated such a backlash that local Catholics appealed to the bishop to quiet the feisty Irishman.
There were threats on Coyle’s life, but it was not his defense of the Catholic faith that led to his murder. Instead, he performed the wedding of Ruth Stephenson, a recent convert to Catholicism, and Pedro Gussman, a forty-two-year-old Puerto Rican wallpaper-hanger who had been in Birmingham some fourteen years. Ruth’s father, Edwin Stephenson, was an ordained Methodist minister who made his meager living hanging around the courthouse and offering to perform the wedding ceremony of couples obtaining a marriage license. His daughter’s interest in Catholicism began in childhood. When Ruth was only twelve, Stephenson discovered her talking to Coyle in humiliatingly plain view of Birmingham’s anti-Catholic population. The Stephensons tried to keep tight reins on their independent daughter, but just after her eighteenth birthday, Ruth received instruction in the Catholic faith and was baptized. A few months later, Coyle performed Ruth and Pedro’s marriage ceremony. Stephenson found out later that day. He confronted Coyle, shot him, and then promptly turned himself in.
Stephenson’s lead defense attorney was Hugo Black, who in five years’ time would be elected to the United States Senate and then, in 1937, appointed by Franklin Roosevelt to the United States Supreme Court. Black was the only one of Stephenson’s four attorneys who was not at that time a member of the Ku Klux Klan—but he joined soon after the trial. The Klan picked up the legal tab for Stephenson’s defense, a fact that KKK members themselves did not confirm until much later. Davies’s description of the circumstances leading up to the murder takes up less than half the book. The rest is devoted to the legal proceedings and trial that followed the murder.
The book is strongest here, as Davies the legal scholar explains the intricacies of trial proceedings and the legal issues at play without those becoming tedious and heavy reading. Grand juries and preliminary hearings may look the same inside as well outside the South. As Davies demonstrates, however, the political, social, and religious atmosphere outside the courtroom could dictate outcomes inside it. Typically, according to Davies, “proof that a man had carried a loaded gun to another man’s home, pointed it at his head, and pulled the trigger sufficed” for a grand jury to indict (143). At least in this case, however, that process was not perfunctory. The grand jury finally returned an indictment on second-degree murder charges (the prosecutor wanted first degree murder), but not before the start of the preliminary hearing that Stephenson refused to waive.
Justice was not always the point of the South’s legal system, and it is here where the South’s otherwise ethnic and religious diversity was forced into binary categories—black and white, Catholic and Protestant. From the time that he turned himself in, Stephenson maintained that he had acted in self-defense. As specious as that claim was (witnesses saw no evidence of a struggle, and Coyle was unarmed), that defense prevented Black from placing Stephenson’s actions in their proper context. Black knew that a jury of Stephenson’s peers would understand and empathize with the defendant if he could highlight their common racial and religious identity. Thus Stephenson’s line of defense included a claim of self-defense and temporary insanity (brought on by the Catholic assault on his family). As Davies explains, Stephenson was responsible for his actions (he reacted to Coyle’s threat to his own personal safety) and not responsible (temporarily out of his wits) at the same time.
Black’s defense strategy was risky, but such incongruence could be made congruent in the emotionally charged environment of racial and religious prejudice. As Davies’s narrative illustrates, Black managed this feat because in most white southern minds there was a connection between religious and racial otherness. As scholars of racial construction have demonstrated, race was a fluid category, and its boundaries often depended on factors having nothing to do with biology or genetics. What is more, the category Protestant meant nothing without the presence of a Catholic other (after all, what would a Protestant be protesting, except for Catholicism?). The Catholic “other” therefore also reinforced racial otherness.
In this case, those issues played out in this way: prior to his marriage, Pedro Gussman was considered “white.” He dated white women, was registered to vote, and, he pointed out, “no one has ever questioned my color until I became mixed up in this case” (197). When Stephenson had worked as a barber some years earlier, moreover, Pedro was one of his customers. Most telling was this legal reality: Pedro and Ruth could never have obtained a marriage license if he were not white. Yet in court Stephenson claimed that Gussman was a “Negro.” In fact, he testified that he has said as much to Coyle during their confrontation. Black reinforced that notion when he dramatically introduced Pedro to the court, after having the room darkened so as to accentuate Pedro’s dark (tanned) skin. Black also insinuated that Pedro had straightened his curly hair so as to appear white. White jurors believed of course that they “knew” a Negro when they saw one, and Black encouraged them to “look at his eyes” (243). The damage to Pedro’s racial standing and the prosecution’s case was beyond measure. Stephenson was acquitted, and the courtroom erupted into cheers.
While not historiographically significant, Rising Road is compelling storytelling along the lines of Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice (2004). As a good story, it probes deeply as it captures the imagination. It will work well in an undergraduate classroom. One measure of Davies’s success might be the extent to which she captured the imagination of at least one segment of her audience. In February 2012 United Methodist Bishop William Willimon, and Rev. Mikah Hudson, senior pastor of Birmingham’s Highlands United Methodist Church, officially apologized for Methodists’ response to the murder. They hosted an Ash Wednesday service of repentance and reconciliation, with local Catholic participation as well.1
See Greg Garrison, “Priest’s slaying in Birmingham to be remembered in church service,” The Birmingham News, February 19, 2012, http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2012/02/priests_slaying_in_birmingham.html, accessed May 30, 2012; and “Methodist service asks forgiveness for priest’s murder 91 years ago,” Catholic News Service, http://www.georgiabulletin.org/world/2012/05/22/NEWS-1/, accessed May 30, 2012. ↩