This week's tragedy of the rabbi shot and killed in Miami coincided with the anniversary of a priest being shot on the front porch of the rectory at St. Paul's Church in Birmingham, Alabama on August 11, 1921.
Human beings need scapegoats. We have a terrible time accepting that we collectively suffer, do, and tolerate horrible things. We tend to take out our fury on someone we can dehumanize. No small group gets as much widespread hatred as the Jews. Last week, Rabbi Joseph Raksin of Brooklyn was apparently shot in cold blood while walking on a public street on the Sabbath. In 1921, Fr. James E. Coyle was shot on the rectory porch while saying his evening prayers.
I attended the annual memorial Mass for Fr. Coyle at St. Paul's Cathedral on Monday. Judge William Pryor of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals spoke at the reception afterwards about the great priest living in the dreadful days following the First World War when groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the True Americans made war against those they feared and scapegoated. The murder resulted in a now largely forgotten "trial of the century" during which future U.S. Senator and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black inferred that the menace of the Catholic Church itself was an aggravating factor in the temporary insanity of Rev. E.R. Stephenson when he shot and killed Fr. Coyle. The jury, composed mostly of Klansman, bought the temporary insanity defense. Rev. Stephenson walked out a free man.
Fr. Coyle had presided at the sacrament of marriage of Rev. Stephenson's daughter Ruth to a Catholic born in Puerto Rico, Pedro Gusman. Ironically, Rev. Stephenson, a Methodist deacon, did not have a parish, but rather, his ministerial duties consisted of performing quick wedding ceremonies for young couples in the Jefferson County courthouse. Truth is stranger than fiction, and law professor Sharon Davies has captured the multiple ironies in her page-turner of a detective story: Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America. Here she discusses her book on television. As a former prosecutor, her analysis of the trial is keen, as is Judge Pryor's.
Hugo Black is Alabama's most famous jurist. The federal courthouse in Birmingham is named for him, yet the most famous trial he ever conducted resulted in the acquittal of a murdering Klansman. Black's joining the Ku Klux Klan after the trial shows what a political animal he was, though it is unthinkable today that a former Klansman could be elected to federal office or confirmed as a federal judge. His bios on the web do not mention the murder trial that made him famous and got him elected to the U.S. Senate.
A few years ago, a local Methodist minister read the story of Rev. Stephenson murdering the priest, and it caused him to become an ecumenical force for prayer and reconciliation. There was even a Methodist memorial service for Fr. Coyle during Lent in 2011. At the annual Mass for Fr. Coyle at St. Paul's, there is always a Methodist minister present and sometimes the local Methodist bishop as well as ministers from other Christian churches. Representatives of the Jewish community likewise attend because the Jews know as well as anyone that religious freedom denied for one will be denied for another.
Rabbi Raksin, requiescat in pace.