By Sharon Davies, John C. Elam/Vorys Sater Designated Professor of Law, Moritz College of Law, The Ohio State University
Rising Road is one of those books that happened by accident; a chance occurrence on the way to somewhere else.
After the outcome of the election in 2004, when the country was abuzz with reports of how the question of gay marriage drove President George W. Bush's supporters from their homes to the voting booths, I began to think about law and marriage, and the way of constitutional change.
It was a topic of great personal importance to me, law and marriage. Had my parents been swayed by the marriage laws that were still in place in various states at the time of my birth, I would never have been born. Neither would any of my five brothers or sisters. It was the era of the anti-miscegenation laws. The simple act of having us was a crime, a number of states declared, and they backed the ban up with the criminal sanction. Defiant mixed race couples could be jailed.
I was nearly seven-years-old by the time the U.S. Supreme Court finally got around to striking those laws down. Seems my siblings and I weren't crimes after all. It was the law that was wrong, the Court announced in Loving v. Virginia in 1967. The decision was unanimous. Even Justice Hugo Black agreed, though a son of the South, the region of the country most steadfastly devoted to the anti-miscegenation regime.
After the election in 2004, I wondered how constitutional change like that came about-how acts of intimacy, and marriage, and the wee beings that can result from them, could one day be outlawed, and another day not. I will write an article about that, I thought to myself, and set to work.
When doing the researching for that intended article, however, the unexpected happened. I tripped over a reference to a 1921 trial in Birmingham, Alabama. A murder trial, where the marriage of the daughter of a Methodist minister to a Catholic migrant from Puerto Rico, led the minister to kill the Catholic priest who took their vows. How horrible, I thought. I'll use it as an example in my article.
But when I actually found the transcript of that trial, the awful, revealing story underlying the minister's crime subsumed me-just as the crime had subsumed the nation back in 1921-and my plans changed. This is no law journal article, I thought to myself. This is a book. After three years of research and two more of writing, I delivered the manuscript for Rising Road to my editor at Oxford University Press.
The nonfiction book, written as a narrative, begins with the decision of Ruth Stephenson, age 18, to marry Pedro Gussman, a wallpaper hanger, against the wishes of her parents, Rev. Edwin R. and Mary Stephenson. Alabama law permitted the union, even if Ruth's parents objected; only marriages between whites and blacks were banned. So Ruth and Pedro had no trouble obtaining the marriage license they needed to be wed. But as the tale in Rising Road reveals, "unwritten laws" have been known to shadow those printed in a state's criminal code, and sometimes even outstrip them.
When Rev. Stephenson learned about his daughter's marriage, he shot and killed the priest who married them, Father James E. Coyle, the presiding pastor of St. Paul's Catholic Church. There never was a dispute about the identity of Fr. Coyle's killer-a number of witnesses heard the shots and saw Stephenson step down from the rectory porch where his victim lay bleeding, and Stephenson immediately surrendered and confessed-the only question was whether the minister would be punished for it.
In 1921, the question was more complicated than it should have been. Rev. Stephenson was a member of the resurrected Ku Klux Klan, sometimes known as the "second Klan," an organization that had successfully rebranded itself as a "patriotic" fraternity dedicated to defending the nation against the forces that threatened to engulf it: Blacks, Catholics, Jews and waves of other immigrants flooding into the country with only the slimmest desire to assimilate, Klansmen raged. The rallying cries worked; the Klan packed its rosters during this period with "the best men in town"-doctors, lawyers, judges, law enforcement officers, and men of the Protestant clergy like Stephenson.
After the shooting, the Klan circled the wagons around the jailed minister, holding drives across the state to raise funds for Stephenson's defense, and hiring a talented young lawyer to lead it, Hugo Black. I will not spoil the story for those who care to read the book. Suffice it to say that the pursuit of justice would not be easy, and the lawyer who would one day play a part in striking down the anti-miscegenation laws in 1967, would not hesitate to exploit the impulses that animated them in 1921 while defending the killer of an unarmed priest. It would take some time for Hugo Black, and the nation, to travel along that road to somewhere else.