Clymer: Ohio’s McCulloch Deserves a Place in Statuary Hall

Posted March 5, 2010 at 5:34pm

After years of covering hearings, last month I went to Columbus, Ohio, as a witness, urging six state legislators to put a statue of Bill McCulloch, a longtime Republican Congressman, in Statuary Hall in the Capitol.

[IMGCAP(1)]Three states — Alabama, California and Kansas — have recently replaced statues of 19th-century notables with real heroes of the 20th century. That’s how Helen Keller and former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower got there. But Ohio is doing it in reverse order, first deciding to remove William Allen’s statue and then figuring out who should replace him. Allen, a Jacksonian Democrat who pushed for war over the Oregon territory’s border with Canada, is losing his place because he denounced the Emancipation Proclamation in language that we would not print today.

Those six legislators are charged with making a recommendation to their colleagues, and for months they have been listening to arguments for various Ohioans — a list that they recently cut to 10, including Thomas Edison, who only lived in Ohio until he was seven; Harriet Beecher Stowe of Cincinnati, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”; and Olympic track star Jesse Owens.

I argued for McCulloch on the grounds that he symbolizes what everyone would like to see more of in Washington, D.C. — bipartisan cooperation that puts country above party.

McCulloch was absolutely essential to the passage of the most important law of the 20th century, the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 1963, the United States faced a crisis over civil rights. After Sheriff Bull Connor of Birmingham, Ala., unleashed dogs and firehoses on black children, President John F. Kennedy proposed a comprehensive bill covering education, voting and equal access to public accommodations — hotels, restaurants, theaters and stores. The proposal went forward before the administration had a strategy to pass it. Republican votes would be needed to overcome the opposition of the still solidly Democratic South. But Attorney General Robert Kennedy rudely dismissed Republican bills, saying he had not had time to read them.

The administration could learn from its mistakes. Burke Marshall, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, flew to Ohio on a pilgrimage. He went to see McCulloch, the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, a strong advocate of “equal rights,” as he called them. Long before President Kennedy had reached that conclusion, McCulloch considered racial equality a “moral issue.” McCulloch, his party’s leader on the issue, agreed to help, on two conditions:

First, that the administration promise it would not drop provisions from the House bill in order to pass it in the Senate. That had happened in 1957, and exactly that strategy of appeasing the Senate was in the minds of White House officials in 1963. But McCulloch warned Marshall that if the bill was weakened in the Senate, House Republicans would vote against it when it came back before them. The administration understood. It pledged not to support any Senate amendments that had not been cleared with McCulloch.

Second, McCulloch wanted an assurance that the legislation would not be sold to the nation as a Kennedy bill or a Democratic bill, but that Republicans would get equal credit. That was easier. As Robert Kennedy said later, “nobody made any effort to take any credit for it in the Democratic administration, nobody at the Department of Justice or in the administration, generally.”

As it developed, the bill was stronger than President Kennedy’s. It added sections prohibiting discrimination in employment and a provision allowing the attorney general to intervene in discrimination suits filed by individuals.

Getting there was not simple. New York Rep. Manny Celler, the Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, let a liberal-dominated subcommittee push the bill beyond what McCulloch (and House GOP leaders) would support. McCulloch, the ranking member, felt he had been double-crossed. The White House sided with him. As President Kennedy said in the midst of that scrap, “McCulloch can deliver 60 Republicans. Without him, it can’t be done. He’s mad now because he thinks that an agreement that he had with us on the language of compromise has been thrown away by the subcommittee. So now he’s sore. … To get Republicans, we’ve got to get McCulloch.”

When enough arms had been twisted so that the bill’s provisions satisfied McCulloch, Rep. Charlie Halleck of Indiana, the House Republican leader, backed it, too. He was promptly condemned by Republicans who said he was helping the Democrats out of a mess that their liberals had created and damaging Republican chances in the South. But in February 1964, the House passed it with no significant changes (except to add discrimination by sex to the prohibitions in the employment section). The vote was 290-130, as 137 other Republicans voted “aye” along with McCulloch.

In the Senate, the longest filibuster in history was broken after the Republican leader, Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, declared civil rights was an “idea whose time had come.” He said he would back the bill with what he said were important amendments but which were actually modest changes, all cleared with McCulloch. The Senate passed the bill on June 19, 1964. A few days later — on July 2, the one-year anniversary of Marshall’s visit to McCulloch’s law office in Piqua, Ohio — the House adopted the Senate version after McCulloch said:

“To my colleagues in the Congress as well as to people everywhere who believe in equality under the law, who support the Constitution and who love liberty, not only for themselves but for others as well, the civil rights bill now before us for final consideration is in accordance with the best traditions of America.”

Many far-sighted Americans, from Martin Luther King Jr. to President Kennedy to Dirksen and Lyndon Johnson, played vital roles in making the civil rights bill a law. But none of them was more essential than McCulloch. Without his commitment, his savvy and his determination, it would not have passed.

I concluded my testimony by saying, “The nation stands in debt to Bill McCulloch and the people of Ohio who sent him to Washington. Please choose to honor him and keep his legacy in the Capitol. He inspires us half a century after his great work. Make a statement to, and for, the nation by enabling Bill McCulloch’s memory to inspire Senators and Representatives today and in years, even decades, to come to follow his example and put country before party.”

On Feb. 23, McCulloch made the final 10. The Ohio public is now being asked to vote on the list to advise the committee. I hope Ohio’s schools teach the history of the 1960s.

Adam Clymer covered Congress from 1963 until 2003, when he retired from the New York Times as its chief Washington correspondent.