Remembering Our KKK Past
On August 11, 1921, Edwin Stephenson, a Methodist minister, shot and killed Father James Coyle on the rectory porch of St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Earlier that day, Father Coyle had presided over the marriage of Stephenson’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Ruth, to native Puerto Rican Pedro Gussman, a 42-year-old wallpaper hanger. Independent-minded Ruth had been interested in Catholicism since adolescence; Coyle had baptized her into the Church some months before her marriage. When word of the wedding reached her father, he grabbed his gun and headed for St. Paul’s.
Because Father Coyle was unarmed, Stephenson’s defense team could not plausibly assert self-defense, and needed to come up with some other justification for his action. It did. Lead lawyer and future Supreme Court justice Hugo L. Black argued that Stephenson had acted in a state of temporary insanity brought on by the marriage of his daughter to a “negro.”
Pedro Gussman’s identity as a Negro came as news to him. Prior to the trial, he had always been regarded as white. He dated white women. He was registered to vote. Had Gussman been considered black, he and Ruth could not have acquired a marriage license, because marriage across the color line was strictly forbidden in Alabama. “No one has ever questioned my color until I became mixed up in this case,” he complained.
By transforming Pedro Gussman from a tanned Puerto Rican into a “negro,” Hugo Black offered the jury, composed exclusively of white men, a credible basis to find Edwin Stephenson temporarily insane. Father Coyle had seduced Ruth Stephenson away from the true faith and her father’s rightful rule, and had then married her to a man whose religion and color marked him as inferior. Any self-respecting white man would blow a fuse under such circumstances. The jury voted to acquit. Hugo Black’s reputation grew. He joined the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, which paid Stephenson’s legal fees.
Formally reconstituted at Stone Mountain, Georgia, in 1915 by white men inspired by the heroic portrayal of the Reconstruction-era Klan in the film Birth of a Nation, the Second Klan was not of the hooded-hicks-on-horseback variety. The resurgent KKK was strongest in the West and Midwest, and as common in urban as in rural areas. The 1920s Klan was rooted in WWI vigilance committees and is more accurately grouped with other postwar organizations like the American Legion than its Reconstruction antecedent. Two factors distinguished the resurgent Klan from other fraternal organizations of the era, however: its use of violence and its political influence. ...