Bigotry in ’Bama: de Valera’s visit to Birmingham, Alabama, April 1920

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 2004), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 12

Eamon de Valera addressing a meeting in the course of his American tour, 1919–20. (BBC Hulton Picture Library)

Eamon de Valera addressing a meeting in the course of his American tour, 1919–20. (BBC Hulton Picture Library)

In April 1920 Eamon de Valera stepped off the train at Birmingham, Alabama. Only days before the city had officially ‘unwelcomed’ him. A small party of merely curious onlookers were joined by a police squadron that had been mobilised to prevent disorder or to prohibit any type of parade given in honour of the ‘so-called President of Ireland’. Meridian, Mississippi—de Valera’s previous stop on his tour of America to gain recognition for the newly declared Irish Republic—was recovering from the ravages of tornado season, just as Birmingham was caught in the whirlwind of the most controversial diplomatic visit in the young but sprawling city’s history. Although de Valera’s tour aimed ostensibly at obtaining American recognition of Ireland’s independence, which did not immediately occur, his personal and publicity triumph was tempered by the deep divisions it generated within the Irish-American community. Such divisions, however, were not displayed in Birmingham as that segment of the population united behind his visit. De Valera’s diplomacy was not the primary cause of the storm—it was his Catholicism.


Anti-Catholicism in the Deep South

Diane McWhorter’s Carry me home: Birmingham, Alabama, the climactic battle of the Civil Rights revolution (2001) records a surprising fact. Thomas Blanton—convicted of the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young African-American girls—initially focused his violent hatred against Catholics. Earlier the same year he had talked about bombing a church—not the African-American Baptist Church that he did bomb, but a Roman Catholic church instead.

It was White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) hatred of Catholics that prevailed in Birmingham during the second and third decades of the twentieth century. This religious bigotry allowed the city to ‘cut its teeth’ for the racial bigotry so prominently displayed during the 1960s. The real threats to WASP supremacy were not African-Americans but Catholics, unconfined as they were by Jim Crow laws—the name given to both de jure and de facto segregation between blacks and whites in the Deep South. The Irish-American population in particular was an insidious threat, as that ethnic group mixed so freely with the WASP majority in all situations except religion. Unlike most other Catholic immigrant groups, the Irish were not confined to the working class of Birmingham—nicknamed the ‘Magic City’ because of its phenomenal industrial growth. A significant segment of the Irish population had even attained social prominence with the so-called ‘Big Mules’ (Birmingham’s industrial leaders)—the city had even elected a Catholic mayor, Frank P. O’Brien, and a police chief, Martin Eagan—although its influence was confined to the downtown area and did not extend into the WASP suburbs that would eventually be incorporated into the city. Birmingham’s Catholic population slipped from 28.9 per cent in 1906 to 16.4 percent in 1916. The Baptist population increased by 21.3 per cent. By 1920 out of a population of c. 200,000 the percentage of Catholics had slipped to only 5 per cent, owing to both the incorporation of outlying WASP suburbs and a decline in Irish immigration.

The 1916 Jefferson County elections had already resulted in the repudiation of ‘pro-Romanist forces’ in its government. The municipal election of 1917 exemplified the growing power of the anti-Catholics, as a nativistic organisation called the True Americans (TAs)—a brotherhood not unlike the recently revived Ku Klux Klan—aimed at the removal of all Catholics from both public office and from businesses. The attempt to force Catholics from work in the private sector was, according to a contemporary account, ‘carried out systematically and with considerable success’ as many city merchants feared ruin ‘at the hands of the TAs and other secret and fraternal societies which are parties to the prejudice’. Employers in Birmingham were confronted with vigilance committees, which demanded that they fire Catholic employees or else suffer boycotts. Jewish merchants ignored their intimidation, as anti-Catholic literature permeated the city.

Birmingham was led to believe that Catholics were plotting to control all government in the name of the pope. Their parochial schools would destroy the public education system. Their way of life was a menace to the nuclear family-centred home as the basic unit of society. The governor of Alabama, Thomas E. Kilby, was elected by ‘out-anti-Catholicising’ his opponents, just as the future controversial governor George Wallace would later win by ‘out-segregating’ his opponents. Kilby promised during the campaign to find legal procedures to force Catholic priests into marriage. His administration enacted a Convent Inspection Law, establishing a state commission to direct sheriffs, upon written petition of 25 citizens, to inspect convents at any hour to determine whether any woman was being held against her will. Behind this legislation was the specious charge that convents were dens of iniquity maintained for the personal satisfaction of unmarried Catholic clergy.


Ku Klux Klan reorganised, 1915


By 1915 the Ku Klux Klan had reorganised and focused its attention upon the threat to ‘true or one hundred per cent Americanism’. (Richard Bondira, Indiana Historical Research Foundation)

By 1915 the Ku Klux Klan had reorganised and focused its attention upon the threat to ‘true or one hundred per cent Americanism’. (Richard Bondira, Indiana Historical Research Foundation)

The outbreak of World War I coincided with a vast influx of new immigrants. The native WASP response was a reorganised Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in 1915. Unlike the original anti-black Klan of the Civil War’s aftermath, the reborn order focused its attention upon the threat to ‘true or one hundred per cent Americanism’—the Roman Catholic Church, a church synonymous in the minds of many with either the legalisation of alcohol or bootlegging, as well as the concomitant practising of adultery as envisioned in convent orgies.

In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson touted the nativist cry addressing the dangers of ‘hyphenated Americanism’:

‘There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags but welcomed under our generous naturalisation laws . . . who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life . . . Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.’

The American melting-pot had failed to melt. After the United States’ entry into World War I in 1917, patriotism found its most prominent expression in the newly organised American Legion, which in Alabama overlapped strongly with the KKK.

De Valera’s US mission

At the Paris peace conference after the war Wilson made it clear to Irish representatives that the issue of an Irish republic was a British concern and not an international one. It was against this background that Eamon de Valera embarked upon his eighteen-month mission to the United States to gain recognition for the state of which he was elected president in 1919.

Because of the accident of his birth in New York City in 1882, by which he qualified for US citizenship, de Valera escaped the fate of other 1916 commandants. The British government, anxious to secure the United States’ entry into the war, spared his life and he was released along with the other 1916 prisoners in 1917. Re-arrested in 1918 for complicity in an alleged German plot, he famously escaped from Lincoln jail in February 1919. The British ignored the fugitive who arrived in the United States in June 1919 as a stowaway on the Celtic, an Irish ocean-liner to New York.

No other American city reacted as Birmingham did to de Valera’s visit. His trip was sponsored by the Jefferson County branch of the American Commission for Irish Independence, the Friends of Irish Freedom, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Knights of Columbanus, and the Women’s Auxiliary of the Hibernians.

With the American Legion Post Number 1 of Birmingham seizing the initiative in opposing the de Valera visit, both it and his Irish supporters were quick to assert that religion played no role in opposition to or support for the visit. Nevertheless, in the midst of the heat surrounding the visit was Fr James E. Coyle—an Irish-born priest with the largest Catholic congregation in Birmingham at St Paul’s Cathedral—who led the Catholic community’s fight against the anti-Catholic forces in the city. Coyle had met the specious charges of the Catholic-haters by offering 1,000 dollars to anyone who could prove the threat of the Catholic Church to American democracy. One of the most articulate advocates of the anti-Catholics, a local physician, Dr O.T. Dozier, responded with the following, but declined any offer of money:
(1) Catholics cannot be loyal to the United States government since they owe temporal allegiance to the pope.
(2) The pope seeks to control American politics.
(3) The Catholic hierarchy controls a political machine.
(4) Catholics are forbidden to read the Bible.
(5) Catholics worship images and statues.
(6) Immorality is common in monasteries or convents.
(7) The Jesuits teach that ‘the end justifies the means’.
(8) The document known as the ‘Knights of Columbus Oath’ is genuine.
(9) Girls are forced into the sisterhoods or retained there against their will.
(10) Catholics seek to destroy the public schools.
(11) The Catholic Church refuses to acknowledge the marriages of Protestants as valid.
(12) Some Catholic buildings are stocked with ammunition.


City Commission a ‘gang of peanut politicians’


The steelworks at Ensley, just outside Birmingham, Alabama, in 1919. Because of its phenomenal industrial growth Birmingham was nicknamed the ‘Magic City’. (Underwood and Underwood)

The steelworks at Ensley, just outside Birmingham, Alabama, in 1919. Because of its phenomenal industrial growth Birmingham was nicknamed the ‘Magic City’. (Underwood and Underwood)

During the uproar of the de Valera visit, the pro-WASP Birmingham press quoted remarks made by Coyle during the course of the war to the effect that he would rather stand with his Teutonic brothers than the oppressive Anglo-Saxons. The feisty priest described the Legion as ‘misguided men’ and the City Commission, which supported their position, as a ‘gang of peanut politicians’.

Despite protestations that religion was not involved, the opposition of the Legion to the visit was supported by the influential Methodist Pastors’ Association of the Birmingham/Jefferson County district. Wayne Flynt maintains in his article ‘The divided religious mind of Birmingham, 1900–1930’ that ‘There is certainly no question that Birmingham’s Protestant churches supported the Ku Klux Klan’. The leadership of the Klan estimated that over half of the white Protestant ministers in Jefferson County were part of the fraternal order.

Judge Horace C. Wilkinson, author of the Legion’s resolution approved by the city commissioners, responded to de Valera’s defenders:

‘The Legion says that no man who represents a faction whose hands are dripping with the blood of American service men, who have resorted to arson, assassination, and murder to further a claim, should be received in Birmingham as a welcomed guest. If this is offensive to any man’s religion, then that man, in my opinion, does not possess enough religion to inject into a controversy. If any church approves of the misconduct toward American service men by Sinn Féinners, or if any religious organisation approves of resorting to arson, assassination, and murder, then it is time the American people are learning of it.’

Having been denied the right to parade by the city commissioners, the supporters of de Valera continued to press his visit. Governor Kilby maintained that the State Department should have deported him months before. But in spite of such sentiments, the governor could not comply with the request of the Legion that de Valera be declared ‘persona non grata’ as it exceeded his authority so long as he committed no breach of the peace nor in any manner led the governor to believe that such a breach would be provoked. Kilby reiterated that this was a political rather than a religious issue.

Frank J. Thompson, the Alabama Chairman of the American Committee on Irish Independence, responded that Kilby’s attitude was quite typical of men of his type:

‘The time is coming, whether Governor Kilby realises it or not, when the same moral law that governs man shall govern nations and when robber nations, like the burglarious individual, will have to realise the truth of the principle and be governed by it’.


Thompson also reminded Kilby that there were other brands of patriotism just as sincere as his own and suggested that the governor become more versed in his own nation’s history before attempting to stigmatise those Americans whose sympathies lay with the Irish people.


Sinn Féiners branded traitors


Fr James E. Coyle—an Irish-born priest with the largest Catholic congregation in Birmingham at St Paul’s Cathedral and one of de Valera’s fiercest supporters. Within fifteen months of de Valera’s departure he was murdered by Methodist minister and Klansman E.R. Stephenson. (The Author)

Fr James E. Coyle—an Irish-born priest with the largest Catholic congregation in Birmingham at St Paul’s Cathedral and one of de Valera’s fiercest supporters. Within fifteen months of de Valera’s departure he was murdered by Methodist minister and Klansman E.R. Stephenson. (The Author)

In a mass meeting of over 1,000 on the eve of de Valera’s visit, a number of resolutions were adopted that condemned it as an affront to the state of Alabama and an insult to ex-servicemen. The US Senate’s expression of sympathy for the Irish Republic was condemned; the US should scrupulously refrain from interference in the domestic affairs of a friendly nation and comrade-in-arms. All residents and organisations, both political and religious, that aided or sympathised with Sinn Féin were branded as disloyal. Sinn Féiners were branded traitors, forever barred from favourable consideration by the American people. Finally, the resolutions urged the US government and each member of the Alabama delegation in Congress to do whatever was necessary to deport de Valera and ‘his foreign associates who espouse the cause of Sinn Féinism’—also referred to as ‘de Valeraism’ during the controversial visit.

As the anti-de Valera forces frantically pursued their crusade against him, his supporters persevered in their preparations for a huge meeting in the Jefferson Theatre for him to defend his cause and to answer charges levelled against him. Tremendous crowds tried to obtain seats in the Jefferson Theatre for more than an hour before the ceremony began. At the rising of the curtain a long and prolonged ovation greeted the stage party, including a few uniformed soldiers with their Rainbow Division emblazoned on their arms, several sailors and four Confederate veterans. The highly decorated New York war hero Major Michael Kelley of the 165th Infantry Rainbow Division spoke first. Kelley, who had led the opposition to Wilkinson and the Birmingham Legion, said, ‘It is hard to be an American these days. When a man stands up in this country to plead the cause of liberty, he is branded as un-American’. In a slap at the local Legion Post he maintained, ‘I venture to say that if the question of Ireland’s freedom was left with the American Legion, Ireland would be free tonight’. Kelley remarked that more than 200 local veterans had opposed the ‘unanimous’ actions of their Birmingham chapter in regard to the visit. The Major then recited speeches delivered at the mass rally the night before, which were greeted with both ‘cries and jeers’. He maintained that the meeting was called to incite trouble against de Valera and to recruit more members for the anti-Catholic ‘club’ crusade. Reminding the audience that the Irish struggle was not a religious question, a leading Presbyterian minister from Ireland, Dr J.H. Irwin, spoke next.

Ireland ‘the only white nation on earth still in . . . slavery’

When de Valera himself was introduced, the standing-room-only audience greeted him with cries of approval and welcome from the lower floor, as people from the balcony and upper part of the theatre were banging on their seats, chant-ing ‘Take him out’. Finally de Valera spoke:

‘While I was on the train I wondered just what I was going to say to you folks. I believed I knew just what you were like. I had seen a number of clippings that seemed to represent the thoughts of the people of this city. So I came to the conclusion that you who live in Birmingham were just like those that Ireland is fighting back in the old country. But after I got to the city, in fact, the minute I got into the depot I understood that a small class of the citizens of Birmingham were against my coming here, and that the largest part of the people of your city were the same kind of square, clear-thinking people that you find anywhere else in the United States . . .
The republic of Ireland has a right to ask the people of the United States for their help. Every time in the last 100 years that the American flag has been in danger, true sons of old Ireland have been the first to defend it. Irish blood has flowed in every battle that the United States ever fought. Today should the flag of this country be endangered, every man in Ireland would be ready to fight, and die for it, proud that he had the chance . . . When the war broke out Irish citizens volunteered for service in the British army because England promised that she was fighting for the rights of small nations, and it was by winning the war that Ireland hoped to win her freedom.
We threw ourselves upon a nation that has never been generous. And when the war was over she forgot. Her promises to Ireland were scraps of paper. Ireland was a squeezed lemon and cast aside. It is your privilege, it is your right and it is your duty to say what side of this question you are on. Whether you stand with England, the imperial autocracy, or stand for the freedom of Ireland.’

At the close of the speech, a resolution was read urging Wilson to adhere to the action taken by the Senate in recognising the Irish Republic and to give no more loans to England while she was still militarily occupying Ireland. Waves of ‘ayes’ and ‘nos’ blended together, yet the ayes were in the majority. The astute political skills of de Valera were clearly illustrated by his suggestion to the white audience that Ireland was ‘the only white nation on earth still in the bonds of political slavery’.

Fr James Coyle murdered

Less than fifteen months after de Valera’s departure from Birmingham, one of his closest friends and fiercest supporters—Fr James Coyle—was murdered on the steps of his downtown rectory, only a few feet from the cathedral. A local itinerant Methodist minister and Klansman, E.R. Stephenson, incensed at his daughter’s conversion to Catholicism, took the life of the priest who had performed her marriage to a man of Puerto Rican or ‘coloured’ ancestry.

The Klan led Stephenson’s defence, securing for him the best trial lawyer in the state and ultimately one of the most prominent US Supreme Court justices, Hugo Black, known for his virulent anti-Catholicism. Only white Protestant males served on the jury—the majority being Klansmen, with the foreman a Klan field organiser. The presiding judge was also a Klansman. Black, browbeating witnesses and ridiculing Catholics, appealed openly to ethnic and religious bigotry. Having prayed and read the Bible while deliberating, the jury acquitted Stephenson on the grounds of self-defence.

As was so often cited during the controversy, Eamon de Valera’s visit to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1920 may have indeed been similar to Benjamin Franklin’s mission to France to gather support during the American War of Independence. But the fact perhaps forgotten was that the Deep South was one of the mother country’s strongest areas of loyal support. In Alabama, that support for the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage was as strong as ever. Some things between parent and child never change. As Charles P. Sweeney recorded in The Nation in August 1921, ‘The sign is up. No Catholics are wanted in Birmingham and those now there are desired to leave’.

David B. Franklin is Professor of History at Young Harris College, Georgia.

Further reading


T.P. Coogan, Eamon De Valera: the man who was Ireland (New York, 1993).

G. Feldman, Politics, society, and the Klan in Alabama: 1915–1949 (Tuscaloosa,1999).

N. MacLean, Behind the mask of chivalry: the making of the second Ku Klux Klan(New York,1994).


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