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Rev. of book on Stephenson murder of Coyle [Bham, 1921]

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  • A.J. Wright
    Sharon Davies.  Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America.  Oxford  Oxford University Press, 2010.  Illustrations. 327 pp.  $27.95
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 6, 2011
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      Sharon Davies.  Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion
      in America.  Oxford  Oxford University Press, 2010.  Illustrations.
      327 pp.  $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-537979-2.

      Reviewed by Krystal A. Humphreys (Texas Tech University)
      Published on H-SAWH (December, 2011)
      Commissioned by Antoinette G. van Zelm

      Very rarely is one given the opportunity to read and review a book
      that is entertaining, informative, and almost impossible to
      criticize. _Rising Road_, by Sharon Davies, is one of those books.
      Davies brings to life the historical narrative surrounding one of the
      most controversial court cases in Alabama history, one that centered
      on issues of race and religion.

      While the book neither advances nor challenges the historiography of
      the Jim Crow South, it does act as a historical synthesis of all of
      the social issues that came to a head in 1920s Alabama. The decade
      was characterized by extreme social change and an equally extreme
      backlash. Conservatives were concerned about the apparent loss of
      tradition that was changing the social landscape of the United
      States. Women had the right to vote, and the flapper came to
      represent a new breed of women who were both independent and somewhat
      rebellious. The years after World War I also saw increased membership
      in the Ku Klux Klan; no longer solely focused on black people, the
      "new" Klan sought to "purify" the nation and "protect" it from
      immigrants, African Americans, Catholics, and anti-American ideas.
      Fundamentalism emerged in opposition to intellectualism and liberal
      Christianity in an effort to protect so-called traditional family
      values. The trial of Edwin Stephenson that is at the center of
      _Rising Road_ acts as a microcosm for an examination of these issues.

      On August 11, 1921, the Reverend Edwin Stephenson, a Methodist
      minister with no pulpit to preach from, shot and killed Father James
      Coyle, a Catholic priest and pastor of St. Paul's Catholic Church in
      Birmingham. This event resulted in one of the most interesting and
      influential trials of the century. Rather than simply relating the
      story of the trial, Davies goes into a great deal of depth to show us
      the world that Stephenson and Coyle inhabited and the events that led
      to the crime.

      Given the careers of both the victim and the defendant, religion held
      a prominent position in the trial. Fears of Catholicism were common
      during the 1920s, sometimes causing outbreaks of violence, as was the
      case in Birmingham. Tabloid papers and so-called patriotic groups
      spread anti-Catholic propaganda to the masses, and Davies does an
      excellent job of showing the effect that this had on Americans. The
      killing of Father Coyle was, in many ways, a violent act of
      aggression against Catholicism. Father Coyle had, on the morning of
      the day he died, presided over the marriage of Stephenson's secretly
      Catholic daughter, Ruth, to another Catholic. In addition to
      anti-Catholic sentiment, Davies also goes into detail regarding the
      history of the Methodist Church and the schisms over the issue of
      slavery that eventually created the Methodist Episcopal Church,
      South. All of this background information is necessary for the reader
      to fully understand the scope of this trial.

      As part of Stephenson's defense, the racial identity of Ruth's
      husband was also called into question during the trial. Alabama's
      harsh antimiscegenation laws, in addition to the complicated
      definition of race that shaped both legislation and social
      interaction in the Jim Crow South, influenced the trial's narrative.
      The event that spurred Stephenson's actions was the marriage of Ruth
      Stephenson to Pedro Gussman, a native of Puerto Rico and a Catholic.
      While there was no legal reason that the two could not be
      married--both were of age and both were considered "white" under the
      law--testimony at the trial suggested that Gussman was, in fact, a
      Negro and therefore Stephenson's actions were understandable, if not
      justified. As a Klan member, Stephenson would have been praised for
      "protecting" his family both from a Negro and a Catholic priest.

      In addition to addressing race and religion, the Stephenson trial and
      Davies's book also highlight issues of gender in the 1920s. The
      decade saw an increase in the political rights of women through their
      acquisition of the right to vote, but social changes were slow to
      develop. As Davies writes, "Women of the 1920s might have been
      enfranchised, but they were hardly liberated" (pp. 18-19). The
      treatment of Ruth Stephenson as an unreliable witness, the press's
      portrayal of her as immature, and her family's reaction to her both
      before and after the trial indicate a negative perception of women,
      especially young women, in the South. For example, when Ruth arrived
      in court to hear her father's verdict, she sported a new bobbed
      hairstyle that her aunt referred to as "frightful" (p. 271). Ruth's
      adoption of modernity, particularly her insistence on making her own
      decisions apart from the teachings and guidance of her parents, led
      her to be ridiculed by friends, family, and neighbors. Her decision
      to speak with Father Coyle as a young girl and her later choice to
      become a Catholic resulted in forced isolation and harsh punishment
      by her father.

      Davies's rich use of description draws the reader into the story in a
      way that most historical narratives do not. The book contains a set
      of photographs, but the descriptions of people and places are so
      detailed that actual photographs are hardly necessary. Davies sets
      the stage very well by carefully detailing style, fashion, the
      journalistic process, and the dissemination of news. Descriptions of
      relevant locations in Birmingham are also well done. Davies paints a
      picture of the majestic St. Paul's Catholic Church and the newly
      built Birmingham train station in addition to describing major
      events, such as the funeral of Father Coyle.

      What is truly amazing about _Rising Road_ is the way that Davies uses
      her sources, which are mostly court transcripts and newspaper
      accounts, to weave together such a rich and complicated tale. She
      uses these sources to discuss numerous historical topics other than
      the trial. She describes the history of Birmingham to set the scene;
      examines the history of technology and journalism to elaborate on how
      news of the trial and anti-Catholic sentiment were spread; and
      provides biographies of the individuals who were involved in the
      trial, some of whom went on to have distinguished careers in
      politics.

      _Rising Road_ is an excellent read for professional historians and
      fans of historical novels alike. It is also ideal for using in both
      undergraduate and graduate classes on such historical topics as race,
      religion, law, and the American South. This book is very reminiscent
      of Kevin Boyle's _Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and
      Murder in the Jazz Age_ (2004) and would work well in combination
      with that book for a discussion of the law and race in the 1920s.

      Citation: Krystal A. Humphreys. Review of Davies, Sharon, _Rising
      Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America_. H-SAWH,
      H-Net Reviews. December, 2011.
      URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=33592

      This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
      Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
      License.
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