One of the most shocking murders in Birmingham, Alabama history happened in 1921. Father John Coyle, a Catholic priest, was shot and killed by a Methodist minister. The KKK paid for the minister’s defense team, that was led by Hugo Black.
Father James Edwin Coyle was a native of Ireland. Ordained in Rome on May 30, 1896 , Father Coyle was 23 years old when he was dispatched to the Diocese of Mobile, Alabama to begin his priesthood. Following eight years of service in Mobile, Father Coyle was appointed pastor of Birmingham’s St. Paul’s Catholic Church in 1904.
In May of 1904, a Birmingham Newspaper printed a short article about Father John Doyle that speaks to how well liked he was liked by people who met him. It’s important to know, for the sake of the story of Father Coyle’s life and the obstacles he would face years later, that this account is from a Protestant man who had befriended Father Coyle.
“There goes one of the simplest, most natural and most scholarly men that ever preached the gospel in this town. Father Coyle is a graduate of University but a poor fellow unlearned like me, can talk with him all afternoon and never even suspect that he is conversing with a superior person. His clear, wide-open and wide-apart blue eyes, his firm chin, high and noble brow, and the whole contour of his face and head invite confidence, affection and admiration. Divest him out of his clerical dress and you would pick him out in any company as clearheaded, clean-hearted fellow who’d go you for a ten mile walk in the country with a good cigar and a better story at the end of the jaunt.”
Father Coyle would serve at St Paul’s for 17 years. During the last few years of his service in Birmingham, there were big shifts in the city of Birmingham. The city was an iron and steel-making center of the United States. Workers were in high demand along with the coal industry that was on the rise by the early 1920s. Huge numbers of immigrants from South and Eastern Europe were coming to America and moving to the South to fill the jobs that were open.
Immigrants made native Alabamians uncomfortable for two reasons
- 1. Native Alabamians were suspicious of new immigrant groups who might not respect white hierarchy in the United States. The racial order in Birmingham and across the country was clear. Whites were supreme at this time. And that extended to all parts of life – business, churches, schools, hotels and restaurants.
- 2. Greeks, Italians and Lebanese came in large numbers. They were speaking foreign languages and Alabamians began to question the allegiance of foreigners to the United States.
World War I had ended a few years earlier, in 1918, and people in America were suspicious of anyone who spoke foreign, unfamiliar languages.They were afraid of the unknown and anyone who was different.
This fear led to a rise in xenophobia in Alabama. This irrational fear of anyone who was different, extended to religion as well, including Catholics.
During this era, Catholics were said to never be able to be patriots because they owed their allegiance to a foreign leader, The Pope. Catholics were also disfavored, across the South, because of the Church’s openness to African Americans including making education in their schools open to all children, including African American children.
The laws of the day, backed up the xenophobia and racism that was rampant at the time. There were laws in place to prevent inter racial marriage. There were also laws in place in Alabama that made it possible to inspect Catholic buildings for ammunition and for people who may be held against their will inside Catholic churches, convents, monasteries, rectories, even Catholic owned hospitals. This was done, in part, after conspiracy theories began circulating that Catholics were holding Protestants against their will in an effort to Convert them to Catholicism.
This was the climate that existed for Catholics in the South at the time. A climate that was fueled the “rebirth” of the Ku Klux Klan, known as the Klan of the 1920s.
The original KKK was formed after the Civil War by former Confederates who held on to their ideal of white supremacy. The Klan worked together to intimidate people of color through violent acts and threats of violence. By the late 1870s, Federal laws passed to prosecute the KKK and their power decreased and seemed to fade away. That was until 1915 when the movie, The Birth of A Nation, became a box office hit. The movie’s glorification of the Klan inspired an Alabama man, William Simmons, to announce that the Klan was alive again. With the help of an Atlanta publicist, Mary Elizabeth Tyler, the KKK re branded themselves as an organization that was defending the United States and standing up for America. Standing against foreigners, blacks, Jews and Catholics.
Imagine you’re Father Coyle, heading up a large Catholic congregation in Birmingham, Alabama. This growing anti-Catholic persecution surrounding you and it’s been organized and promoted by the Ku Klux Klan. Father Coyle had a choice. Ignore it. Remain silent. Hope things will change. Or stand up to the Klan and defend religion and immigrants.
Father Coyle did not remain silent. He stood up to members of the KKK who were traveling around Birmingham burning churches and carrying out acts of violence. His defense of immigrants and people of all faiths, would ultimately cost him his life.
More about this episode
Father James E. Coyle Memorial Society
Brendan Shine, Coyle’s Grandnephew, Discusses Murder
Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America
Murder in the Cathedral
Remembering James Coyle: The Irish priest the Ku Klux Klan killed Irish Central 9 June 2017
Victim of the Klan: Father James Edwin Coyle, Alabama. Catholicism.org
Theme Song “Dark & Troubled” by Panthernburn. Special thanks to Phillip St Ours for permission for use
“Quinn’s Song: First Night”; “Ever Mindful”; “Long Note One”; “Echoes of Time”; “Ghostpocalypse 3” Road of Trials”; “Private Reflection” Music by Kevin MacLeod Licensed under Creative Commons