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March 01, 2018 Feature

Hugo Black and the Murder of Father James E. Coyle

Kenneth P. Nolan

In the early evening on August 11, 1921, Edwin Stephenson, a Methodist minister, walked to the porch of the rectory of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Birmingham, Alabama, and shot Father James E. Coyle three times, killing him. He then turned himself in to the sheriff. Stephenson’s reason for the shooting was simple: Earlier that day at St. Paul’s, Coyle had married Stephenson’s daughter, Ruth—a Catholic convert—to Pedro Gussman, a Catholic.

Stephenson retained Hugo L. Black, a young, ambitious, and skilled trial lawyer who would six years later be elected senator from Alabama and in 1937 be appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Supreme Court, where he served until 1971. One of the most influential justices, a protector of individual liberties and civil rights, Black is revered for his intelligence, insight, and integrity. His representation of Stephenson, however, included appeals to racism and anti-Catholic prejudice. Black’s legacy should be tarnished, maybe even destroyed, by his actions during this trial and this time of his life. Like many national figures we admire, Black was flawed, even cowardly, yet he is celebrated with the U.S. courthouse in Birmingham named for him and a U.S. stamp with his portrait issued in 1986 as part of the “Great Americans” series.

Stephenson’s trial was a sham. The date was changed to accommodate Judge William Fort, a friend of Black and later law partner. Almost every ruling favored the defense. The prosecution called five witnesses; Black called 44 and attacked Catholic witnesses as “Siamese twins” or “brothers of falsehood as well as faith.” His final question to some prosecution witnesses was “You are a Catholic, are you not?”

During the early 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan ruled Birmingham. Catholics were considered un-American and, frequently, anti-American. Every Catholic employed by the city was fired, and by 1922, all workers were Protestants. Businesses that employed Catholics were boycotted, and, for a time, Baptist Hospital refused to admit Catholics. At Stephenson’s trial, the judge, the police chief, four of the five defense attorneys, the foreman of the jury, and most of the jurors were members of the Klan, as was Stephenson. The Klan even paid for Stephenson’s defense.

Yet, even though an acquittal was never in doubt, Black took no chances. He emphasized not only the religious aspect but also race before the all-male, all-white jury. Later, on September 13, 1923, Black joined the Klan, marching in parades, addressing meetings in full attire. His resignation letter, dated July 9, 1925, ended with “Yours, I.T.S.U.B. [In The Sacred Unfailing Bond], Hugo L. Black.” Forty years later, a Klan hood was found with his name on it.

Segregation was the law in Alabama, and the groom, Pedro Gussman, who was of Puerto Rican descent, was legally white. Black, however, wasn’t satisfied with solely focusing on Coyle, a Catholic priest, as one who proselytized Ruth Stephenson against her will: “A child of a Methodist does not suddenly depart from her religion unless someone has planted in her mind the seeds of influence. . . . When you find a girl who has been reared well persuaded from her parents by some cause or person, that cause or person is wrong.”

Black emphasized Gussman’s swarthy complexion, knowing how most white Alabamans despised those darker or different. In an objection to a question by the prosecutor as to whether Stephenson thought Gussman was a Negro, Black said, “He [Gussman] could not trace his lineage; very difficult to trace some of them.”

Black then had the blinds drawn, the lights dimmed to accentuate Gussman’s dark features. During his direct of Stephenson, Black paraded Gussman before the jury. “Bring him closer to the jury and let them see his eyes,” Black ordered without objection. Floodlights were then turned on Gussman. “This will do,” Black said, dismissing Gussman. “I just wanted the jury to see that man.” When the jury quickly and unanimously voted to acquit, the courtroom cheered. Edwin Stephenson, now acclaimed, spoke to Klan rallies throughout the South. A detailed account of the murder and trial is in Rising Road (Oxford University Press 2010) by Sharon Davies, former law professor at Ohio State, now provost at Spelman College.

In 1927, Black, then a senator, defended a friend, George (Chum) Smelly, who shot and killed Lucas Ware, a black, after Ware was acquitted of manslaughter of Will Smelly, Chum’s brother. An acquittal by an all-white jury of a black for killing a white in that era was most rare. As in the Stephenson trial, Black’s defense was self-defense even though Ware was shot in the back. Black had 15 witnesses testify as to Smelly’s exemplary character and 10 testify that Ware was dangerous and violent. After the acquittal—the jury deliberated for a mere 20 minutes—Smelly was congratulated.

I don’t know many saints other than my wife, who was canonized by my mother for marrying me. But our nationwide debate over Columbus, Confederate generals, even Washington and Jefferson has raised the issue as to how we judge people—not only historical figures, but friends, relatives, neighbors. Is it over a lifetime, weighing good against bad? Or are some acts so heinous or disgusting that they can never be ignored or forgiven? Should monuments to slave-owning Washington and Jefferson be tossed into the Potomac?

What about the statue of Christopher Columbus that overlooks the state courthouse in Brooklyn? Or the Eastern District of New York courthouse named for Teddy Roosevelt, accused of believing white people and culture superior? Or John Jay High School, where I taught, named for our first chief justice, who argued that Catholics shouldn’t be permitted to hold elective office. What do we do with anti-Catholics like Peter Stuyvesant, John Quincy Adams, Thomas Nast? And let’s be honest, prejudice against Catholics pales when compared with slavery or segregation. Let’s not ignore the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, or the denial of entry in 1939 of the St. Louis, a ship loaded with Jewish families, a quarter of whom later died in Nazi death camps. Our glorious history is replete with such depraved acts, especially against Native Americans.

No doubt Black’s trial tactics were immoral and, perhaps, evil. Yet, do we overlook, even excuse, those transgressions of a relatively young, very ambitious attorney who while on the Supreme Court later rationalized his Klan membership to a law clerk: “Why, son, if you wanted to be elected to the Senate in Alabama in the 1920’s, you’d join the Klan too.” See Roger K. Newman’s Hugo Black—A Biography (Pantheon Books 1994).

I focus on Hugo Black not only because he allowed his ambition to overwhelm decency but also because he was, in later life, such a positive force for equality. His vote on Brown v. Board of Education (1955), which desegregated schools, cost him personally. Friends and political allies abandoned him, and the furor was such that his son, Hugo Black Jr., had to move to Florida from Birmingham. Justice Black joined a unanimous court in United States v. Price (1965) to overturn the trial court’s dismissal of a case brought against 18 members of the Klan for the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi during the struggle for civil rights. Other decisions—for example, on prohibiting prayer in public schools—also led to a firestorm of criticism. These protests never swayed Black from his convictions.

How do we evaluate Black’s life and legacy? Do we accept that in those times, in that place, racist, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic beliefs were the norm? Do we justify malevolence by simply acknowledging that many at that time owned slaves, supported segregation, believed Catholics’ loyalty was to the pope, not the president?

We are all sinners, I was always taught. And phonies, too. Are you an ardent environmentalist, as I am, yet have Amazon products delivered regularly with the resulting bubble wrap and cardboard packaging, via trucks using fuel and spewing fumes? Heck, my UPS guy doesn’t even ring our bell. He just looks for our cars (yes, plural), and if he doesn’t spot one, just walks to the back door. Do you favor income equality yet live in an exclusive neighborhood and send your children to private schools—or economically segregated public schools—and expensive colleges? Do you advocate racial and ethnic diversity but dismiss the economic component, ignoring the poor whatever the color? The list is endless.

I wouldn’t have named a courthouse for Hugo Black, and I hope I never used his stamp. Yet, if we erase his name, who should we enshrine? Who is so virtuous, so perfect? Rather, we should insist on teaching the truth—that our nation’s founders, our presidents, artists, religious leaders, and citizens were and are deficient, inadequate individuals. Their hatred and bigotry should be broadcast with the same fervor as their beauty and courage.

More than 90 years after Father Coyle’s death, a Methodist Church service in Birmingham brought both congregations together in a spirit of compassion and reconciliation. Father Alex Steinmiller said it best: “There is no statute of limitations on forgiveness.”

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Kenneth P. Nolan

The author, a senior editor of Litigation and the author of A Streetwise Guide to Litigation (ABA 2013), is counsel to Speiser Krause, Rye Brook, New York.