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History Book: FDR attempts to pack the Supreme Court

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WORLD Radio - History Book: FDR attempts to pack the Supreme Court

Plus, John Calvin’s final sermon and justice for a murdered Civil Rights leader


President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the executive office with reporters in Washington, D.C., Aug. 25, 1939 Associated Press/Photo by Henry Griffin

JENNY ROUGH, HOST: Today is Monday, February 12th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Jenny Rough.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Up next, the WORLD History Book. Today, a conviction for the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers.

And President Franklin Delano Roosevelt attempts to pack the court to ensure his legislative agenda.

But we begin with the final sermon of reformer John Calvin. Here now is WORLD Radio Reporter Emma Perley:

EMMA PERLEY: John Calvin is widely considered one of the most significant figures in the Protestant Reformation. First for writing the Institutes of the Christian Religionoutlining the fundamentals of the Protestant faith—and second, as a powerful preacher and reformer in Geneva, Switzerland.

CALVIN: Having preached my first sermon at age sixteen, I would hope to God that I have a few thousand sermons left.

But by February 1564, John Calvin is barely able to stand. He’s suffering from severe arthritis and gout. The once dynamic preacher slowly opens the word of God while sitting in a chair. Voice actor Ed Phillips reads from what is to be Calvin’s last sermon. The text is from Matthew 5 [Luke 6], the Beatitudes.

CALVIN: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
Blessed are those who mourn or weep, for they will be comforted and laugh.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Suddenly his mouth fills with blood from chronic tuberculosis. Calvin tries to finish the sermon but is taken home. Three months later, he writes in one of his last letters …

CALVIN: I draw my breath with difficulty, and every moment I am in expectation of breathing my last. It is enough that I live and die for Christ.

Two days after Calvin’s death, thousands attend the St. Pierre Cathedral in Geneva for his funeral. In an unusual move for such an influential theologian, Calvin had requested to be buried in an unmarked grave. His burial site is memorialized today with a small plaque in remembrance of his contributions to the Protestant faith.

Next, on February 5th, 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sets out to radically change the Supreme Court. If his proposal succeeds, the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill would expand the number of Supreme Court judges from nine to fifteen. But it faces bipartisan opposition. Here’s Democratic Representative Samuel B. Pettengill speaking out against it.

SAMUEL PETTENGIL: A packed jury, a packed court, and a stuffed ballot box are all on the same moral plane. This is more power than a good man should want, or a bad man should have.

FDR has worked to restore the economy after the Great Depression. Calling his programs the New Deal, FDR’s plans continued after winning his second reelection by a landslide. Here he is during his inaugural address in 1936.

FDR: This nation is asking for action, and action now!

But the Supreme Court keeps accepting legal challenges to his plans and overturning many of his programs, fearing an over-expansion of government. For instance, SCOTUS declares FDR’s National Industrial Recovery Act unconstitutional in 1935. They also rule against the New Deal Agricultural Adjustment Act. So FDR proposes packing the court to improve his chances for New Deal legislation to go unchallenged. Here’s FDR again. Audio courtesy of Bloomberg:

FDR: But we cannot yield our constitutional destiny to the personal judgment of a few men who, being fearful of the future, would deny us the necessary means of dealing with the present.

The court packing plan ultimately fails on the floor of Congress. But soon afterwards, the Supreme Court begins upholding FDR’s New Deal programs as more cases are argued in the high court. Justice Owen Roberts was a prominent opponent of New Deal programs, but changed his mind after the court packing plan. This reversal is often called the switch in time that saved nine. Fellow justice Felix Frankfurter privately criticized Roberts for caving to political pressure. And many historians have speculated since that the Supreme Court decided it would rather compromise with FDR than face another threat to their authority.

Finally, on February 5th, 1994, Byron De La Beckwith is convicted of murdering civil rights leader Medgar Evers. The trial is a long time coming, as the murder actually happened thirty years earlier. Here’s NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins speaking of Evers at his funeral in 1963.

ROY WILKINS: He had strong feelings and strong convictions, and great love of freedom.

Evers was the NAACP’s field secretary and challenged segregation at the University of Mississippi. He was assassinated at his home by De La Beckwith, a Ku Klux Klan member and white supremacist. Here’s De La Beckwith speaking of his beliefs during his 1964 trial.

DE LA BECKWITH: I believe in extermination of all that oppose this: the white right Christian side of every issue.

De La Beckwith’s trials included two all white, male juries who could not deliver a verdict. He was then acquitted of the murder. But in 1989, investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell starts digging through the court files. He ultimately finds out that lawyers singled out pro-segregationist jurors.

Felonies such as murder have no time limit in the Mississippi statute of limitations. So, in 1994, De La Beckwith is finally brought to justice and charged with the murder of Evers. Here’s Mitchell with WJTV 12 News.

JERRY MITCHELL: When the word “guilty” rant out, you could hear these waves of joy as they cascaded down the hall until it reached a foyer full of people, black and white, just erupted in cheers.

That’s this week’s WORLD History Book. I’m Emma Perley.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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