Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America, by Sharon Davies
It was among the most notorious criminal cases of its day. On August 11,1921, in Birmingham, Alabama, a fiercely xenophobic Methodist minister named Edwin Stephenson shot and killed a Catholic priest, James Coyle, in broad daylight and in front of numerous witnesses. The killer’s motive? The priest had married Stephenson’s eighteen-year-old daughter Ruth to Pedro Gussman, a Puerto Rican migrant and practicing Catholic.
Having all but disappeared from historical memory, Sharon Davies’s Rising Road resurrects the murder of Father Coyle and the trial of his killer. As Davies reveals with novelistic richness, Stephenson’s crime laid bare the most potent bigotries of the age: a hatred not only of Negroes, but of Catholics and “foreigners” as well. In on of the case’s most unexpected turns, the minister hired future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black to lead his defense. Through registered later in life as a civil rights champion, in 1921 Black was just months away from donning the robes of the Ku Klux Klan, the secret order that financed Stephenson’s defense. Entering a plea of temporary insanity, Black defended the minister on claims that the Catholics had robbed Ruth away from her true Protestant faith, and that her Puerto Rican husband was actually a Negro–an unparalleled attack on the dominant religious and racial hierarchies of the day–to persuade the jury to condone the priest’s murder.
Placing the story in social and historical context, Davies brings this heinous crime and its aftermath back to life, in a brilliant and engrossing examination of the wages of prejudice and a trial that shook the nation at the height of Jim Crow.