William Hershey

COLUMBUS: If President Obama wants Congress’ help in preserving a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Obama will need to find some Republicans like Ohio’s William McCulloch.

The Supreme Court prompted the SOS from the president on Tuesday when it effectively eliminated a provision of the law that has required nine states, mostly in the South, to get advance permission from the federal government before changing their election laws.

Unfortunately for Obama and other supporters of the landmark civil rights legislation, McCulloch, a U.S. House member from Piqua in Miami County, died in 1980 at 78. There are few, if any, Republicans like him in Congress today.

His credentials as a civil rights legislator were matched by few, if any.

When McCulloch announced his retirement from Congress in 1971, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, widow of slain president John F. Kennedy, applauded him in a three-page handwritten note:

“I know that you, more than anyone, were responsible for the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, and particularly the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Louis Stokes, Ohio’s first black congressman who served in the U.S. House from 1969-1999 representing part of the Cleveland area, was equally laudatory:

“Bill, black people all over America are indebted to you for the courageous and patriotic manner in which you undertook their fight for complete and equal rights in this country.”

McCulloch was best known for his role in winning support for the 1964 legislation that forbids discrimination in hiring, promoting and firing. He also played a key role a year later in enacting the voting right legislation that sought to ban practices, mostly in the South, that kept blacks from voting.

The law set up comprehensive federal oversight of how elections were run in states that had discriminated against blacks. McCulloch’s work when provisions of the law came up for renewal relates directly to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision this week.

In 1969 and 1970, the administration of Republican President Richard M. Nixon argued for cutting back on a provision of the voting rights law that required states with a history of discriminatory voting practices to get Justice Department approval before making changes affecting voting, according to Ohio History Central, an online encyclopedia maintained by the Ohio Historical Society.

McCulloch, with like-minded allies, fought against a president of his own party in opposing Nixon and keeping the voting rights law intact.

In its recent 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court held that the formula used to determine which jurisdictions were covered by the requirement to get clearance from the Justice Department was unconstitutional because it was based on outdated data.

The decision left open the possibility that Congress could pass new legislation determining which states would be required to get federal approval for changes.

The chances of that happening, however, appear slight, particularly with a Republican-controlled House opposed to federal oversight of any kind.

On the surface, McCulloch’s involvement in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s seemed unlikely. The Piqua area, located in western Ohio north of Dayton, had a black population of just 2.7 percent, according to Ohio History Central.

Miami County is bright red in presidential elections. In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney got 66 percent of the county’s vote compared to 31 percent for Barack Obama. Statewide, Obama got about 50.7 percent to about 47.7 percent for Romney.

McCulloch, who had served three terms as speaker of the Ohio House before going to Congress, was a constitutional lawyer who believed in smaller government and wanted to cut back on federal spending. That didn’t stop him from supporting the local NAACP in the campaign to end segregated seating in local restaurants.

In the 1940s he visited the home of Emerson and Viola Clemens, a black couple in Piqua, just to find out what their lives were like and what changes the country needed to make.

In 2010, the couple’s daughter, Colleen McMurray, described what his visits meant:

“It was such a personal and caring approach to understanding our separate worlds rather than relying on national polls as politicians do today.”

Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He also was the Columbus bureau chief of the Dayton Daily News. He can be reached at hershey_william@hotmail.com.