Ohio’s little-known contribution to 1964 Civil Rights Act

The 50th anniversary of the enacting of the 1964 Civil Rights Act got plenty of attention earlier this month, but there is a piece of the story that has a lot to do with Ohio, though it’s little remembered today. William M. McCulloch, a longtime congressman from the Miami Valley, was instrumental in creating and passing that law and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His rarely told story is now the subject of the biography, “McCulloch of Ohio: For The Republic,” by Mark Bernstein. Bernstein, now based in Washington, D.C., is a former Yellow Springs resident who has written a number of book about Ohio and Dayton-area history. His latest is available at amazon.com. This essay about McCulloch is modified from a recent speech he gave in the area to promote the book.

I’m going to start with a story that actually has a point.

There’s a song — some of you may know it — called “Down by the Old Mill Steam.” Barbershop quartets love it to sing it — if you will let them. And this song was written by a man named Tell Taylor, from Findlay, Ohio.

Now, about 20 years ago, my editor sent me a clipping from some newspaper in Maine, claiming that Tell Taylor did not write the song. Instead, he had bought it off some overly trusting resident of Maine for $50.

And my editor added: “Go to Findlay and find out how they are taking the news.”

So I found myself sitting on the front porch of the Hancock County Historical Society talking to the county historian. And I say — you know, just man-to-county-historian — how do people in Findlay actually feel about Tell Taylor?

And he replied: “I think they feel about Tell Taylor about the way they feel about the bathtub from the Battleship Maine.”

Now, some of you might have let it go at that. But I delved. I said, “What’s the bathtub from the Battleship Maine — last seen going due south in Havana harbor — got to do with Tell Taylor?”

And he said, “The bathtub from the Battleship Maine is in the basement of the Hancock County Historical Society.”

You might have stopped there. But, I did not. I asked him: How did the bathtub from the Battleship Maine get to the basement of the Hancock County Historical Society?

And he smiled and answered: “We moved it there from the porch.”

Which was not the answer I was looking for.

Summarizing: The Battleship Maine sank in Havana harbor. The harbor was shallow. Part of the ship was above waterline and something of a hazard. So about 1910, the U.S. Navy refloated the ship, towed it out to deep water, and gave it a decent burial.

Before doing so, however, they stripped the ship of everything that might be valuable. And then there was this competition among congressman in Washington to get hold of some relic of the ship to send to their constituents. And what you got depended on how much leverage your congressman had in Washington. A committee chairman might get a 12-inch gun to send home. Sadly, Findlay’s representative was a man of lower stature. So what Findlay got was the admiral’s bathtub.

Now, what is my point?

There are stories that get told perhaps too often. I like Sylvester Stallone, but I think they could have quit after Rocky XII. And then there are stories that are not told often enough. Some of those untold stories — like the one about how the bathtub got to Findlay — don’t really matter. And some of those rarely told stories really do matter. Like the story about William Moore McCulloch, who, among other things, was Congressman from Ohio’s 4th Congressional District.

I’m going to jump to the middle of McCulloch’s life to make a point.

When McCulloch ran for Congress in 1948, he told a crowd in Allen County: “If you expect to measure your congressman’s ability by what he can get you from Congress, I would rather not be elected.”

Running in 1950 following the outbreak of the Korean War – and here I’m quoting from The Piqua Daily Call — McCulloch said: “If you re-elect me, I’m going to vote to lay heavy taxes on your backs” to pay the costs of that conflict.

Imagine for a moment that you are the campaign manager of a candidate who says two things:

First, I don’t plan to bring a single job to this district.

Second, I’m going to raise your taxes.

Now, you might think it would be a good idea to take your candidate to one side and have a little chat — about what people do and do not want to hear.

Yet, despite this honesty — or perhaps more accurately, because of this honesty — William Moore McCulloch never lost an election.

So I will tell you a bit about him — and why he merits remembrance and honor today.

Bill McCulloch was a farm boy from Holmes County, Ohio. He went to an all-white public school. He attended an all-white college. And he graduated law school in 1925 as a member of an all-white class. If you were to assess Bill McCulloch in 1925, you would probably conclude that he was quite hard-working; ambitious; honest — but perhaps not terribly worldly.

(True, he had attended law school in Columbus — but you need to remember that the Columbus of 1925 was not as sophisticated as the Columbus of 1950.)

What changed Bill McCulloch was his decision — never explained — to take his freshly bestowed law degree to the South, where he practiced law for three years in Jacksonville, Fla.

Florida, at the time, was in the midst of a great land boom. You may have heard the phrase, “and if you believe that, I’ve got some swamp land in Florida to sell you.” Well, in 1925, they were selling that swamp land in Florida — and for top dollar.

That may be why he went. But it is not what he learned.

Now, I’m not going to say there was no racism in early 20th-century Ohio. But there was nothing to compare to the racism that a still impressionable Bill McCulloch encountered in Jacksonville.

To pick just one point: Florida had the dubious distinction of having twice as many lynchings, relative to population, as any state. I will not dwell on this. But I will pass on one story told by the great civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall about what lodged in his own mind about such events. “It wasn’t the photograph of the bullet-ridden body hanging from the limb of a Florida pine tree. It was the virtually angelic faces of the white children, all of them dressed in their Sunday clothes, as they posed, grinning and smiling, in a semicircle around the dangling corpse.”

I have no reason to believe that William Moore McCulloch ever heard of that particular event. But he saw a lot, and he heard a lot, and it changed him.

Now, here I need to backtrack just a bit. After Bill McCulloch found employment in Florida, he returned to Ohio to marry his childhood sweetheart, Mabel Harris. McCulloch was a traditionalist, so they had a traditional wedding. They eloped to Paducah, Ky. And they eloped in the traditional way — they borrowed Mabel’s father’s car.

The couple then returned to Florida. The great land bubble burst. McCulloch lost his job and he and Mabel returned to Ohio. Mabel’s father ran a veneering business in Dayton; he had some contacts in Piqua and he asked around about possible employment for his son-in-law. A Piqua lawyer named Berry was looking for a junior partner. He interviewed McCulloch. Among other things, Berry asked what McCulloch’s religious predilections were.

McCulloch allowed as he was a Methodist.

Berry suggested he become a Presbyterian.

The reason, Berry said, was that he himself was a Methodist and was already getting a good share of Piqua’s Methodist business. What the firm needed, he explained, was someone who could bring in some Presbyterians. So Bill and Mabel became lifelong members of Piqua’s Westminster Presbyterian Church.

In 1932 – at age 30 – Bill McCulloch ran for state representative from Miami County. Six years later, he was Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, a position he held until he volunteered for army service in the Second World War at age 42. Post-war, he returned to Piqua, got bored, and ran from Congress.

William McCulloch was not only a Republican Congressman, but a very conservative one. Name any liberal measure proposed when he was in Congress, and it is a safe bet he voted against it. Sometimes, frequently. Once, when he was acting as floor manager on a bill, a Democratic congressman requested permission to speak beyond his allotted time. McCulloch replied, “As I am generous in all things except money, you may.”

But there was one subject upon which he did not budge: civil rights. His exposure in Jacksonville to the racism of the deep South left him an absolute uncompromising supporter of equal rights for all Americans.

In 1966, he wrote an essay whose title pretty much summed up his viewpoint. That title was: “Man was Born to Be Free.”

Now, another story.

In early July, 1963, Burke Marshall – then, assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Kennedy administration – came to Ohio to pay a call on Bill McCulloch. The reason is that McCulloch was the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, which would be handling any civil rights legislation. And Marshall came to say that President Kennedy was about to release his civil rights program, and would McCulloch please refrain from public comment until they’d had a sit down to discuss them.

Two things are worth noting. First, at the time, Republican Congressional policy was that whoever was the ranking Republican on a given committee was the party’s spokesman on that issue. That made Bill McCulloch Republican spokesman on civil rights. By consensus, 60 Republican congressmen would follow his lead.

Second, by time Burke Marshall reached Piqua, William McCulloch had already introduced his own civil rights bill.

William McCulloch was not an imposing figure. He was short, and a bit plump. He did not have the political skill of Lyndon Johnson, or the oratorical ability of Martin Luther King Jr., or even the hair of Everett Dirksen. But he had a response for Burke Marshall.

McCulloch noted that in 1957, and again in 1960, the House of Representatives had passed strong civil rights bills. Each bill had received overwhelming Republican support. And that support had often come from Congressmen from rural districts that lacked an appreciable black population, or very many white voters who were as yet all that concerned with civil rights.

And, McCulloch added, both in 1957 and 1960, the strong House bill went to the Senate, where it was whittled down and whittled down until it became sufficiently acceptable to Southern Democrats that the Southerners agreed they would not filibuster the bill. Civil rights supporters wanted to avoid a filibuster, as no filibuster of a civil rights proposal had ever been broken.

And Bill McCulloch said that he and House Republicans were tired of being invited out on the limb only to have the limb sawn off.

One further note: If the House and Senate passed different versions of the same bill, a joint conference committee would be created to iron out the differences.

And McCulloch told Marshall — if the House passes a strong bill and the Senate sends back a weak one — I will pull my votes, and you will have nothing.

Why? McCulloch believed that a civil rights bill so mild that Southern senators did not greatly object was probably not a bill much worth passing. It was time to stop avoiding a filibuster. It was time to provoke one. And, having provoked one — to break it. Which is what happened. And which is how the 1964 Civil Rights Act, generally regarded as the most important law of the 20th century, was passed.

There’s more. While working on this book, I interviewed long-time New York Times writer Adam Clymer. He said when people think of that time, they focus on two things. The first, he called “the street.” The demonstrations, the agitation, the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. And they focus on the Senate filibuster that lasted 73 uninterrupted days until the Senate finally voted to close off debate. But almost no one, Adam Clymer said, knows who wrote virtually the entire 1964 civil rights bill. When all the negotiating was complete, the basic bill passed was the bill that had been introduced in January 1963 by William Moore McCulloch.

McCulloch was not greatly changed by the events of 1964. He continued to vote against just about every Great Society proposal Lyndon Johnson put forth. He continued to lecture against federal spending; he continued to oppose gun control and foreign aid. He continued to oppose what he saw as federal encroachment on the lives of ordinary citizens. At one point, he informed the U.S. Census Bureau that it was none of their business how many toilets Americans had.

And he continued to support civil rights — the Voting Rights Act; the Open Housing Act and others.

Lyndon Johnson’s attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach, said of him: “We would not have a Civil Rights Act of 1964 or a Voting Rights Act of 1965 were in not for William McCulloch. God knows what would have happened to this country if those bills had not become law.”

Well, I’ve told you what. I’ve told you why. But I haven’t told you how.

And here we come to William McCulloch’s view of what the job of a congressman was. McCulloch believed in bipartisanship; put another way, he believed that any “partisan” victory was bad for the country, because it simply left one side excluded and embittered.

He wrote: “We are a nation of many people and many views. In such a Nation, the prime purpose of a legislature is to accommodate the interests, desires, wants and needs of all our citizens. To alienate some in order to satisfy others is not only a disservice to those we alienate, but a violation of the principles of our Republic. Lawmaking is the reconciliation of divergent views. In a democratic society such as ours, the purpose of government is to soften tension — reduce strife – while enabling groups and individuals to more nearly obtain the kind of life they wish to live.”

Which brings me to the point of the story. One reads, almost daily, of the divisiveness of our political life, of partisan squabbling, of little progress actually being made on addressing the nation’s problems.

The view that the purpose of lawmaking is reconciliation is one that has never been more needed than it is today. How this quiet man from Ohio — William Moore McCulloch — accomplished so much is a story for the unquiet present.

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