Today in 1994, Byron Beckwith was convicted for the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, over 30 years after the crime occurred. Evers was gunned down in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi, home on June 12, 1963.
Beckwith was prosecuted for murder in 1964. However, two all-white (and all-male) juries deadlocked and refused to convict him. A second trial held in the same year resulted in a hung jury. The matter was dropped when it appeared that a conviction would be impossible. In 1989, documents came to light showing that jurors in the case were illegally screened.
At the third trial Prosecutor Bobby DeLaughter produced a riflescope from the murder weapon with Beckwith’s fingerprints, as well as new witnesses who testified that Beckwith had bragged about committing the crime. Justice was finally achieved when Beckwith was convicted and given a life sentence by a racially diverse jury in 1994. He died in prison in 2001 at the age of 80.
Today in 1631 Roger Williams the founder of Rhode Island and a Puritan religious leader arrived in Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony from England. Williams, served briefly as a pastor at Plymouth and then at Salem. Within a few years of his arrival, he alarmed the Puritan oligarchy of Massachusetts by speaking out against the right of civil authorities to punish religious dissension and to confiscate Indian land. In October 1635, he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the General Court.
After leaving Massachusetts, Williams established a settlement at the junction of two rivers near Narragansett Bay, located in present-day Rhode Island. He declared the settlement open to all those seeking freedom of conscience and the removal of the church from civil matters, and many dissatisfied Puritans came. Taking the success of the venture as a sign from God, Williams named the community “Providence.”
Among those who found a haven in the religious and political refuge of the Rhode Island Colony were Anne Hutchinson, also exiled from Massachusetts for religious reasons; some of the first Jews to settle in North America; and the Quakers. In Providence, Roger Williams also founded the first Baptist church in America and edited the first dictionary of Native American languages.
Today in 1917 Congress overrode Woodrow Wilson’s veto and passed the Immigration Act. The law required a literacy test for immigrants and barred Asiatic laborers, except for those from countries with special treaties or agreements with the United States, such as the Philippines.
Various restrictions had been applied against immigrants since the 1890s, but most of those seeking entrance into the United States were accepted.
Immigration to the United States sharply declined, and, in 1924 a law was passed requiring immigrant inspection in countries of origin, leading to the closure of Ellis Island and other major immigrant processing centers. Between 1892 and 1924, some 16 million people successfully immigrated to the United States to seek a better life.
Today in1937 Franklin Roosevelt announced a plan to expand the Supreme Court to as many as 15 judges, allegedly to make it more efficient. Critics immediately charged that Roosevelt was trying to “pack” the court and thus neutralize Supreme Court justices hostile to his New Deal.
During the previous two years, the high court had struck down several key pieces of New Deal legislation on the grounds that the laws delegated an unconstitutional amount of authority to the executive branch. With his landslide reelection in 1936, President Roosevelt issued a proposal to provide retirement at full pay for all members of the court over 70. If a justice refused to retire, an “assistant” with full voting rights was to be appointed, thus ensuring Roosevelt a liberal majority. Most Republicans and many Democrats in Congress opposed the so-called “court-packing” plan.
Before the bill came to a vote in Congress, two Supreme Court justices came over to the liberal side and by a narrow majority upheld as constitutional the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act. The majority opinion acknowledged that the national economy had grown to such a degree that federal regulation and control was now warranted. Roosevelt’s reorganization plan was thus unnecessary, and in July the Senate struck it down by a vote of 70 to 22. Soon after, Roosevelt had the opportunity to nominate his first Supreme Court justice, and by 1942 all but two of the justices were his appointees.
Today in 1883 the Southern Pacific Railroad completes its transcontinental “Sunset Route” from New Orleans to California, consolidating its dominance over rail traffic to the Pacific.
One of the most powerful railroad companies of the 19th century, the “Espee” (as the railroad was often called) originated an ambitious plan conceived in 1870. A year earlier, the Central Pacific had linked up with the eastern-based Union Pacific in Utah, creating the first transcontinental American railway. With that finished, railroad barons looked for ways to increase control over West Coast shipping, and decided to extend the California-based Southern Pacific southward.
By 1877, the Southern Pacific controlled 85 percent of California’s railroad mileage and saw an excellent opportunity to create a transcontinental line through the southern United States. In1881, the Southern Pacific linked to the Santa Fe Railroad at Deming, New Mexico, creating the second American transcontinental railway.
With the “Sunset Route,” considerable financial risks collected very considerable financial rewards. The Southern Pacific had a near monopoly over rail service to California, and took advantage by charging high shipping rates.
Termed “the Octopus” for its tentacled stranglehold on much of the California economy, the Southern Pacific inspired Californians to create some of the first strong public regulations over railroads in American history. Despite the anger and outrage the exploitation inspired, few would deny the Southern Pacific Railroad played an essential role in the growth of a vibrant California economy for decades to come.
Today in1918, the Anchor line steamship Tuscania, traveling as part of a British convoy and transporting over 2,000 American soldiers bound for Europe, was torpedoed and sank off the coast of Ireland by the German submarine U-77.
The 14,384-ton steamer immediately took a great list and crewmembers were plunged into darkness as they began lowering lifeboats into the sea. Of the 2,397 American servicemen on the Tuscania, the convoy was able to rescue 2,187, along with the majority of the ship’s British crew.
On the whole, the British convoy system was highly successful. In the last two years of the Great War, of the 1.1 million American troops transported in convoys to Europe between May 1917 and November 1918, 637 were drowned as a result of U-boat attacks.
Happy birthday Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron Jr., National League baseball player, born today in 1934 at Mobile, Alabama.
In 1952, Aaron became the last player in the majors from the Negro League, eight years after Jackie Robinson integrated baseball.
Season after season, Aaron turned in strong batting performances. “Hammerin’ Hank” hit .300 or higher for 14 seasons and slugged at least 40 homers in eight separate seasons. In May 1970, he became the first player in baseball to record 500 homers and 3,000 hits. Aaron is best known for breaking Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs, established in 1935. On April 8, 1974, in front of a crowd of over 50,000 fans at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Aaron hit his 715th career home run in the fourth inning of a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Sadly, in the months leading up to the new record, Aaron received piles of racist hate mail and death threats from those unhappy about seeing the Babe’s record broken, especially by a black man.
Aaron, who played for the Milwaukee Braves from 1954 to 1965 and the Atlanta Braves from 1966 to 1974, spent the final two seasons of his 23 years in the majors with the Milwaukee Brewers. When he retired in 1976, he left the game with 755 career home runs, a record that stood until August 7, 2007, when it was broken by Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants. Aaron still holds the records for most career runs batted in (2,297), most career total bases (6,856) and most career extra base hits (1,477). After retiring as a player, Aaron became one of baseball’s first black executives, with the Atlanta Braves. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.
Happy birthday Andrew Greeley, Catholic priest, reform activist, and bestselling author, born today in 1928 at Oak Park, Illinois.
Greeley became a priest in 1954. A relatively liberal priest, he came into conflict with the increasingly conservative church hierarchy and was outspoken in his support of women’s roles in the church and of birth control. He engaged in a 17-year-long feud with a cardinal in the Chicago archdiocese. Meanwhile, he wrote nonfiction books on religion and sociology. A short story titled “Ms. Carpenter,” (1978) about Mary, mother of Jesus, took first place in the Catholic Press Association’s short story contest and later published a book, The Magic Cup, an Irish Legend (1979).
Greeley’s breakthrough novel was The Cardinal Sins (1981). The book became a bestseller, and Greeley followed it up with at least one novel a year for the next 15 years. Among his many works are Thy Brother’s Wife (1982), Angels of September (1986), Wages of Sin (1992), and Irish Gold (1994). Sometimes criticized for the relatively high sexual content in his books, Greeley told critics that he attempted to portray real life, while subtly demonstrating the influence and power of religion.
He donated much of the wealth brought by his books to charity. Among his donations were a $1.5 million endowment to the University of Chicago and a $1 million grant to inner-city Chicago schools. Greeley has published more than 100 nonfiction books.
His column on political, church and social issues appears each Friday in the Chicago Sun-Times, and each Sunday in the Daily Southtown, a Chicago newspaper.