Religious fear on this scale had fatal consequences. Eighty-nine years ago in Birmingham, Ala., in the midst of this simmering anti-Catholic atmosphere, Father James E. Coyle was brutally slain. Coyle, a native of Ireland, had been sent to the United States to begin his priesthood. When he dared to stand up in defense of his faith, federal agents warned the bishop in Mobile about death threats on Coyle's life and pledges to torch his Birmingham church.Anti-Catholicism, as the article points out, was ingrained into the American experience during the 1920's, and it was a powerful force well into the 1960's throughout the culture. Although still found in some corners of the the Left and in academia, anti-Catholicism is considerably weaker than it used to be within our culture -- something that we should all be thankful for. Still, it is amazing to see how prevalent it was, that a Methodist pastor in the KKK would kill a Catholic priest, and then be acquitted thanks to the services of a lawyer, Hugo Black, who would later join the Klan and go on to become a U.S. Senator and a Supreme Court justice.
Such threats were not idle. During this same period, the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan exploded after it rebranded itself a "patriotic" fraternal organization dedicated to safeguarding America against the threat of Catholics, Jews and the immigrants flooding the country in unprecedented numbers. This new Klan attracted some of "the best men in town" — doctors, lawyers, judges, law enforcement officers, even clergymen.
On Aug. 11, 1921, one of those men — a Methodist minister, the Rev. Edwin R. Stephenson — brought a loaded gun to the porch of Coyle's home and shot him dead in front of a street full of witnesses. About an hour earlier, the priest had committed the apparently unforgivable act of marrying Stephenson's 18-year-old daughter to a practicing Catholic wallpaper hanger of Puerto Rican descent.
The KKK quickly circled its wagons around its initiate, raising funds for Stephenson's defense and hiring his lead attorney, a young future Supreme Court justice, Hugo Black. Black, it was hoped, might persuade a Southern jury to see Stephenson as the community's champion rather than a bigoted killer. Articles published in the Menace throughout the trial pounded the same theme, pitting one of the most potent worries of the day against justice itself. You can guess the outcome.
Stephenson walked out of the courthouse a free man, and he never so much as apologized. Black joined the Klan himself 18 months later and, with its support, was elected to the U.S. Senate. Only years later did he calmly state that he did not share the Klan's beliefs and was no longer a member, after a reporter revealed his membership as he prepared to take his seat on the Supreme Court. Black survived the ensuing scandal.
Update: Tertium Quid over at From Burke to Kirk and Beyond has a powerful post on Fr. Coyle, the priest who was martyred in Birminham, Alabama, as explained in the LA Times story quoted and linked to above. Well worth a read. As Tertium Quid points out, Fr. Coyle was a martyr for the Catholic faith, gunned down by a bigot inflamed by anti-Catholic and racist prejudice.