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Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America

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Overview

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 ...

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Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America

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Overview

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 one 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This is a reverse whodunit: we know who committed the crime but not—though we can guess—whether he’ll be convicted. Since it takes place in 1921 Birmingham, Ala., the story’s likely to involve race, gender relations, family authority, and religion, and not to be pretty. Davies, a professor of law at Ohio State, knows her way through the thickets of criminal proceedings and the ways of adversarial attorneys. She also mines trial transcripts for all they’re worth. One of the defense lawyers is none other than Hugo Black, later a Supreme Court Justice but here a supporter of the Klan, which he would soon join. When all is over, the murderer, a white Protestant, goes free after killing a Catholic priest and expressing, like most in the courtroom, just about every vulgar prejudice of the day. Davies leaves almost no detail unmentioned, when a novelist’s way of letting one fact stand in for many others would have made the story move more quickly. But this is an illustrative tale about its time, well worth the telling. 15 b& photos. (Feb.)
Kirkus Reviews
The story of the murder of a priest in 1920s Alabama, and the sensational trial that followed. On Aug. 11, 1921, Edwin Stephenson, a Methodist minister in Birmingham, Alabama, gunned down James Coyle, a Catholic priest. The reason? The priest had married his 18-year-old daughter, Ruth, to a Puerto Rican migrant named Pedro Gussman. Stephenson was quickly arrested, and the trial, with its racial and religious overtones, made national headlines. Davies (Law/Ohio State Univ.) attempts to rescue the episode from obscurity. At its heart, the story is about the sad consequences of religious intolerance. Anti-Catholic feeling was common in America at the time, particularly in the deep South, where such prejudice was a hallmark of organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. Stephenson was a longtime member of the Klan, and his daughter's conversion to Catholicism and marriage to a Catholic Puerto Rican drove him to murder. Stephenson's defense attorney, the future U.S. senator and Supreme Court justice Hugo Black, clearly counted on jurors' antipathy toward Catholics as part of his legal strategy, to make them sympathize with his client's weak temporary-insanity defense. Davies digs up some interesting moments-as when Stephenson implores a reporter to "say some little nice things" about him. Unfortunately, the book suffers from a heavy reliance on trial transcripts, and the author's attempts at dramatization are questionable. Though the story is indeed tragic, the takeaway for the reader-that prejudice in the 1920s South led to miscarriages of justice-is hardly a revelation. A diligent but dry attempt to revivify a forgotten legal case.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199794454
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 4/22/2011
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 814,307
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Sharon Davies is the John C. Elam/Vorys Sater Professor of Law at the Ohio State University.

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Table of Contents

Introduction
1. The Best Laid Plans
2. A Parish to Run
3. Until Death Do Us Part
4. A City Reacts
5. A Killer Speaks
6. The Building of a Defense
7. The Engines of Justice Turn
8. Black Robes, White Robes
9. Trials and Tribulations
10. A Jury's Verdict Epilogue Introduction
1. The Best Laid Plans
2. A Parish to Run
3. Until Death Do Us Part
4. A City Reacts
5. A Killer Speaks
6. The Building of a Defense
7. The Engines of Justice Turn
8. Black Robes, White Robes
9. Trials and Tribulations
10. A Jury's Verdict Epilogue

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 5 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 12, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    engrossing "true crime" account

    It is almost impossible for us to appreciate the intense racism of the late 19th and early 20th century. While open and legal in the South, custom dictated almost the same levels in the rest of the nation. This was a time when the Klan was powerful and admired by many Americans. Membership was restricted and considered a requirement for advancement in many communities. America has an intense anti-Catholic history that walked hand in hand with racism. The Klan stood for White Americans against the corrupting influences of the Pope and the Catholic Church, just as it stood against mixing the races.
    In 1921 Birmingham, anti-Catholic feelings, racism, parental authority come together during a murder trial. This is neither a pretty picture nor one that will make the reader feel good. However, it is an objective look at an ugly incident and the society that spawned and condoned it. This book is history that reads like a novel and can be read either way. The book is fully footnoted and indexed for those who wish to read history. However, the author writes in the present converting newspaper accounts and testimony into conversations. This is a well-written engrossing "true crime" account that is well worth reading.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2010

    Great book

    Thoroughly researched. This book gives a well-organized presentation of a very disturbing case in the history of American "justice," and a clear sense of the disturbing attitudes of the time.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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    Posted December 20, 2011

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    Posted December 3, 2013

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews

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