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Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America

We have all heard a story or two about parents who disapprove of their children's choice of spouse. Whether we think of the star-crossed lovers in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet or the Draytons in Stanley Kramer's 1967 film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, we do not have to look very hard to find examples of lovers who marry without the consent or approval of their parents. In such stories it is not uncommon that daughters are disowned, sons disinherited and grandchildren deprived of ever knowing their grandparents. Whether it is religion, sex, race, class or nationality that provokes disapproval on the part of parents, rarely do such stories end as tragically as Romeo and Juliet. In Rising Road, however, Sharon Davies provides a nuanced account of one such drama.

Through the lens of a family drama and a murder case, Davies offers a fascinating snapshot of anti-Catholicism and white supremacy in early 20th-century Birmingham, Alabama. In the summer of 1921, Edwin Stephenson, a Methodist minister and member of the Ku Klux Klan, shot and killed in broad daylight James Coyle, a Catholic priest. Just hours before the murder, Father Coyle had married Stephenson's daughter, Ruth, to a Puerto Rican migrant and Catholic, Pedro Gussman.

Hugo Black, the lawyer who represented Stephenson, subsequently joined the Ku Klux Klan and was appointed a justice to the United States Supreme Court. This story of anti-Catholicism and murder in the American South is vividly captured in Davies' meticulously detailed account of the events leading up to the marriage, the murder and the trial that followed.

In post-war America, Birmingham Klansmen "stepped up their activities ... urging residents to boycott Catholic-owned businesses and pressuring employers to fire or refuse to hire Catholic workers". White Anglo-Saxon Protestants across the country joined a host of "patriotic" societies under the slogan of "100 per cent Americanism". According to Davies, Birmingham was no exception. Along with the KKK, a group calling itself the "True Americans" organised against moral disorder, Negroes, Catholics and Jews. Stephenson, a member of the local Klan, had hoped to teach his daughter to despise Negroes and Catholics. Unfortunately, like many teenagers, Ruth rebelled. Indeed, to her parents' horror, she secretly converted to Catholicism and married a Catholic immigrant when she turned 18. When Stephenson, in a rage, killed the priest who performed the marriage ceremony, the Ku Klux Klan rallied to his defence.

The narrative is interspersed with exhaustive information on the history of the "Magic City", as Birmingham was known, as well as race relations, Jim Crow marriage laws, the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan and anti-Catholicism, vigilante violence and parental authority, all of which provide an illuminating backdrop to this remarkable tale. Through her thorough re-examination of this notorious murder, Davies reveals in unprecedented detail how contemporary politics of race, gender and religion shaped public responses to the murder and trial.

Davies argues: "Entering a plea of temporary insanity, Black and his client used both religion and race - accusing the Puerto Rican husband of being 'a Negro' - in hopes of persuading the jury to forgive the priest's murder." For anyone familiar with the history of the Jim Crow South, Stephenson's resort to violence in defence of his white supremacist power over his daughter, as well as the jury's verdict of not guilty, hardly comes as a surprise.

At times, Davies' relentless attention to detail makes the book a slow and repetitive read. Yet her graceful style, along with a vivid, engaging narrative and insightful analyses, is certain to make Rising Road appreciated beyond the scholarly community.

Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America

By Sharon Davies. Oxford University Press. 338pp, £17.99. ISBN 9780195379792. Published 25 February 2010

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