William M. McCulloch Public Square sits in the heart of downtown Piqua, Ohio, a sleepy town of about 21,000 located 25 miles north of Dayton. The square is home to benches, a gazebo, a fountain that seems perfect for bird baths, and a prominent Ohio historical marker with biographical information on the late William M. “Bill” McCulloch ’25, a constitutional lawyer and congressman who lived quietly and humbly in Piqua for most of his adult life.
Ask anyone who knew McCulloch socially or professionally about him and they will tell you the same things: He was kind. Self-effacing. A hard worker. An upstanding citizen.
Although McCulloch represented Ohio’s 4th district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1947 to 1973 – a long and eventful career by any measure – he rarely discussed his work in Congress with his family, friends, or legal colleagues. Ironically, he was most known for keeping a low profile.
This last year, which marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, however, has been a big one for McCulloch, who died in 1980 at age 78 – and his legacy. Two recent books – McCulloch of Ohio: For The Republic, by Mark Bernstein, and An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by Todd S. Purdum, have brought McCulloch’s story to new audiences. Also, on Dec. 17, 2014, a bronze bust of McCulloch, by acclaimed Ohio artist Jack Earl, was unveiled in the House of Representatives Hall at the Ohio Statehouse, commemorating his life and work; and a painting of McCulloch, by John Boyd Martin, now hangs in Moritz’s law library reserve room.
McCulloch is arguably one of the most undercelebrated and unlikely heroes to emerge from the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. He was a conservative white Republican with a quiet but unwavering passion for equality and justice, who played a pivotal role in the creation and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“Of the important contributions that all the other individual players made to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, none was probably more important than the role Bill McCulloch played. He literally wrote most of the bill,” said James F. “Jim” Dicke II, chairman and CEO of Crown Equipment Corporation in New Bremen, Ohio.
McCulloch had been a friend of Dicke’s father, and when Dicke was a college student at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, he spent the summers of 1966 and 1967 working as an assistant in McCulloch’s Washington, D.C., and Ohio District offices. He opened and answered the congressman’s letters, took constituents on tours of the Capitol, and even drove McCulloch to meetings at the White House.
In recent years, Dicke has made it a personal mission to educate the world about McCulloch’s contributions to the civil rights movement. He commissioned and published Bernstein’s book, as well as the bust of McCulloch in the Ohio Statehouse.
“The role McCulloch played in getting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed has really been overshadowed by the other major players,” Dicke said. “Because he was such a self-effacing man, and because, in many respects, not a lot is known about his life, I thought that a biography of him would be an important resource for future historians to have as a point of reference.”
The McCulloch biography, Bernstein admitted, was the “first time I had ever undertaken a project about which I knew absolutely nothing, and this gave me the advantage of working without preconceptions.”
He delved into every aspect of McCulloch’s life, including his childhood, his years in law school at Ohio State, his years working in the Ohio state legislature and decades in Congress, and his role in crafting and passing two civil rights acts that would change the course of history.
McCulloch, Bernstein said, “seemed always to be acting from a core set of beliefs about the nature of government and the relationship between government and the individual citizen, and what the proper functions of the three branches of government were.”
A regular guy
“This was the desk that McCulloch used while he was in Congress,” said attorney Michael E. “Mike” Gutmann, as he organized a stack of papers on his chocolate brown, fairly standard looking office desk. His eyes lit up as he talked about the lineage of his office furniture and the honor of owning a piece of history.
Gutmann is a partner in the law firm of McCulloch Felger Fite & Gutmann, located on the second floor of the Fifth Third Bank Building in Piqua. A lifelong Piqua resident, he joined the firm in 1984. A large window in his office overlooks the activity in and around McCulloch Square. It’s the same office once occupied by McCulloch himself, from 1929 through the early 1970s, and then by Gutmann’s father, Paul P. Gutmann ’57, from the 1990s through 2000 (McCulloch’s long-time law partner Robert P. Fite ’47 occupied McCulloch’s office from the early 1970s to 1990). Not a whole lot, aside from modern upgrades and technology, has changed about the historic building since McCulloch worked there.
“Bill McCulloch was always pleasant. He had a good word for everybody,” Paul Gutmann said about the man who hired him straight out of law school.
“He was a politician, but not how I envisioned a politician to be. He was the first congressman I’d ever met, and just a regular guy,” he said. “He talked to people on the street and knew everybody, and had a way of finding out what they thought of Washington. ‘What’s going on over there? Anything you don’t like about it? Anything we could improve?’ That was his source of information.”
He was the town’s go-to lawyer for all matters large and small. “If Bill McCulloch wrote your will, you had something special,” he added, with a smile.
One thing McCulloch never talked about at the office, however, was civil rights.
From farm to Congress
In a March 2014 Politico Magazine article on McCulloch, “The Republican Who Saved Civil Rights,” Todd Purdum wrote, “In popular myth, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was the work of Martin Luther King Jr.’s street demonstrations, John Kennedy’s murder and Lyndon B. Johnson’s indomitable will. The full story is more complex — and far more interesting. And Bill McCulloch was at its very heart.”
One thing King, Kennedy, and Johnson all had in common, Bernstein noted, was a large public presence. McCulloch, on the other hand, “had no presence. He had this small voice and he spoke without any verbal emphasis to make his point clear,” he said. In other words, he lacked charisma.
Throughout his research, Bernstein said he could find only one instance in which McCulloch appeared on national television, and he was, to put it kindly, “a guest you would never invite back.”
“He was not looking for the spotlight. He was not looking for recognition. He could have called Walter Cronkite and said, ‘Here’s what I plan to do and here’s my side of the story,’” Paul Gutmann said. “Instead he just went about his job as a congressman to accomplish what needed to be done.”
McCulloch was born and raised on his family’s homestead in Holmes County, Ohio, where he worked on the family farm from childhood through his college years. His family was active in the Underground Railroad. “From his grandfather to his father, to McCulloch himself, he learned that all people are entitled to freedom and equality. That propelled him to support the Constitution and the rights of all citizens,” Mike Gutmann said.
Although the pursuit of higher education was less common at the time, McCulloch graduated from high school in 1918 and enrolled in the College of Wooster. He studied political science for two years at Wooster before being admitted into The Ohio State University School of Law, which at the time offered a five-year bachelor of law degree.
When McCulloch attended the College of Wooster, there were no students of color, and his law class at Ohio State was entirely white and male. McCulloch graduated with a law degree in 1925 and spent a year teaching in the Holmes County school system before beginning a legal career in Jacksonville, Florida, where he worked from 1926 through 1929. Those years in Florida appear to have dramatically shaped his views on racial equality. While there, he first encountered discrimination up close, in the form of segregation and lynchings, and it “awakened his sense of injustice,” Dicke said.
“When he left law school, he was a bright, ambitious young man, but not very worldly,” Bernstein said. “The world hadn’t yet placed its stamp on him. He hadn’t had a very broad range of experiences. His Florida experience had an enormous impact on him.”
In 1929, McCulloch and his wife Mabel moved to Piqua, where McCulloch was hired as a partner in a small firm run by George W. Berry, a Piqua native. In addition to practicing law, McCulloch set his sights on political office and ran successfully for the Ohio House of Representatives in 1932 as a member of the Republican Party. From this first win until his retirement from public service in 1973, he never lost an election, serving in the Ohio House for six terms, including stints as minority leader of the Ohio House from 1936 to 1939, and three-term speaker of the Ohio House, from 1939 to 1943. After his third term, he left the Ohio General Assembly to enlist in the U.S. Army during World War II, where he served for nearly two years as an Army Captain in Europe.
At the end of the war, McCulloch returned to his Piqua law firm, and, in 1947, he won a special election held to fill a vacancy in the Ohio 4th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. From 1959 until his retirement, he was the ranking Republican member on the House Judiciary Committee, and, as such, was able to use his influence to help lead a bipartisan effort to pass the civil rights and voting rights acts.
“McCulloch was a congressman from a rural, conservative district in west central Ohio. He was frugal with the taxpayers’ money, favored allowing prayer in schools and keeping the federal government out of them, voted against foreign aid and gun control. These views were sufficiently in sync with his constituents that voters re-elected him 12 times,” wrote Bill Keller in a Jan. 19, 2014, op-ed, “An Unsung Hero of Civil Rights,” in The New York Times. “With a district that was 2.7 percent black, he had no political incentive to stick his neck out on something as contentious as civil rights.”
Yet, he did.
Keller wrote that “the Kennedy and Johnson administrations knew they would need a large contingent of Republicans to get the civil rights bill past the segregationist Southern Democrats who held the commanding heights on Capitol Hill. And so they sent an emissary to McCulloch, who was the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, and enlisted him as a partner. He agreed to an active collaboration with the Democratic White House, an alliance hard to imagine today and even then viewed by some in his party as bordering on treason.”
McCulloch agreed to help if, and only if, President Kennedy promised that if the House passed a strong civil rights bill, it would not be weakened by the Senate and, further, that the President would give equal credit to both parties. Kennedy agreed.
“I don’t know what Bill McCulloch’s headstone says over in Arlington National Cemetery, but there are so many things that could be written on there,” said Paul Gutmann. “He tried to do the right thing for everybody. Compromise these days is frowned upon, but that was his specialty: getting Democrats, Republicans, and independents to join together for something that’s good for the whole country.”
McCulloch died on Feb. 22, 1980. On an ordinary news day, his passing might have garnered the front page of every major newspaper. However, he happened to die on the same day that the United States national team beat the Soviet Union national team in the Olympics in ice hockey – later deemed the “Miracle on Ice” – and so McCulloch’s obituary was pushed off the nation’s front pages to make room for hockey news.
A nation of many people and many views
Many have speculated on why McCulloch was so passionate in his fight for equal rights. He never really answered that question directly, although an Oct. 12, 1971 speech that he gave to the House of Representatives provides clues.
In the speech, he said, “We are a nation of many people and many views. In such a Nation, the prime purpose of a legislator, from wherever he may come, is to accommodate the interests, desires, wants, and needs of all our citizens… Lawmaking is the reconciliation of divergent views. In a democratic society like ours, the purpose of representative government is to soften tension – reduce strife – while enabling groups and individuals to more nearly obtain the kind of life they wish to live.”
McCulloch concluded by noting that the “function of Congress is not to convert the will of the majority of the people into law, rather its function is to hammer out on the anvil of public debate a compromise between positions acceptable to the majority… In a republic, representatives vote for the people. There is discussion and debate. There are amendments. There is opportunity for compromise.”
In other words, Bill McCulloch was a common man who did uncommon things that helped bring about lasting societal change – simply because it was the right thing to do.