A voice for equality: Congressman McCulloch

First Posted: 2/4/2014

LIMA — William Allen’s past caught up with him more than 130 years after his death.

Deemed no longer a fitting representative of Ohio because of his pro-slavery, anti-Lincoln views, the statue of the Civil War-era politician and onetime Ohio governor was removed from its pedestal in the National Statuary Hall in Washington D.C. where it had stood since shortly after his death in 1879. Allen was replaced in 2010 by inventor Thomas Edison, who, along with President James A. Garfield, now represents Ohio in the Hall.

Edison was chosen from a field of 10 notable Ohioans that included the likes of Jesse Owens, Ulysses S. Grant, Harriet Beecher Stowe and oral polio vaccine inventor Albert A. Sabin. It also included former Fourth District Congressman William M. McCulloch.

McCulloch, “a very conservative Republican” who represented this area in Congress from 1947 to 1973, was a largely unsung and unlikely hero of the civil rights movement.

In an April 2013 column in the Nation, John Nichols suggested that if Republicans wanted to reach out to African-Americans they “have a tremendous story to tell.”

“Theirs is not just the ‘Party of Lincoln,’ it is the party of former Congressman William Moore McCulloch, the Ohioan who served as the ranking Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee in the critical days when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 were being forged,” Nichols wrote.

McCulloch was essential in securing “support for measures that outlawed segregation and racial discrimination,” Nichols continued. “Lyndon Johnson would hail the Ohio Congressman as ‘the most important and powerful political force’ in advancing civil rights legislation in this period.”

When McCulloch died Feb. 22, 1980, his successor Tennyson Guyer told The Lima News that McCulloch was “a rose on the grave of Abraham Lincoln” for his work in getting civil rights legislation passed. McCulloch is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

McCulloch was born Nov. 24, 1901, in Holmes County. He graduated from Wooster College and earned a law degree from The Ohio State University. For a period after law school he practiced in Jacksonville, Fla., where, according to a biography on the Ohio History Center web site, “he saw firsthand the unconstitutionality of segregation practices in the region.”

He returned to Ohio in 1928, established a law practice in Piqua, became active in Republican politics and was elected to the Ohio House in 1932. The biography notes McCulloch “showed his passion for equal rights early in his career and supported the local NAACP chapter in its drive to end segregated seating in local restaurants.”

Although more than 40 years old, he resigned his position as Ohio House Speaker and enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II. McCulloch was elected to the Fourth District seat in 1947. “McCulloch was one of the few congressmen who never used his entire office allowance, and every year returned the unused funds to the U.S. treasury,” according to the biography.

That kind of fiscal conservatism played well in his home district, where he was routinely re-elected by margins of 65 to 70 percent, but it was his work on civil rights legislation in the 1960s that cemented his national legacy.

A key piece of that legislation, the Civil Rights Act, was born when President John F. Kennedy sent a draft civil rights bill to Congress in June 1963, a few weeks after riots in Birmingham, Ala., sparked by bombings targeting local civil rights leader and widely believed to be the work of the Ku Klux Klan.

In October 1963, McCulloch and the House Committee on the Judiciary approved a bipartisan civil rights bill. In a statement Oct. 29, 1963, Kennedy praised the committee, singling out the work of McCulloch and several other leaders. “From the very beginning, enactment of an effective civil rights bill has required that sectional and political differences be set aside in the interest of meeting an urgent national crisis,” Kennedy said. Kennedy was assassinated less than a month later.

On Feb. 10, 1964, the bill was brought to a vote in the House, where it passed by a margin of 290 to 130. When the bill came before the full Senate in March, the “Southern Bloc” of 18 southern Democratic Senators and one Republican Senator launched a filibuster. “We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our (southern) states,” Georgia Senator Richard Russell said.

After months of filibuster and political wrangling, a compromise bill passed the Senate by a 73-27 vote on June 19, 1964.

When Johnson signed the landmark bill into law July 2, 1964, McCulloch was among the crowd of dignitaries, including Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, looking over Johnson’s shoulder.

In his column, Nichols wrote that McCulloch was such a strong advocate for civil rights “because, he (McCulloch) said, ‘to do less would be to shirk our responsibility as national legislators, and as human beings who honor the principles of liberty and justice.’”

Speaking to young Republicans at Harvard Union in October 1964, McCulloch cautioned that, while the Civil Rights Act was an important piece of legislation, “the battle for equality of opportunity will be waged not only through legislation, but also in the minds and hearts of men.” McCulloch would be instrumental in winning approval of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1968, he served on the Kerner Commission, established by Johnson to investigate the cause of race riots in 1967.

When McCulloch left Congress in 1973, Jacqueline Onassis, the widow of President Kennedy, wrote him. “I know that you, more than anyone, was responsible for the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, and particularly the Civil Rights Act of 1964 … You made a personal commitment to President Kennedy … When he was gone, your personal integrity and character were such that you held to that commitment despite enormous pressure and political temptation not to do so.

“I want you to know how much your example means to me,” the Onassis letter continues. “It is a light of hope in an often dark world … How truly fortunate was the Congress of the United States to have your guidance all these years. How they will miss and need you.”

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