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Ohio's unlikely warrior

Ohio has changed its mind. In 1887, the state sent William Allen to Congress as one of its representatives in Statuary Hall. A Jacksonian Democrat who served as a member of the House, the Senate and as Ohio's governor, he is perhaps the last political victim of the Civil War. He was a skeptic of the anti-slavery movement before the Civil War, a critic of Lincoln and one of the Peace Democrats who undermined the Union cause. This spring Ohio is searching for a replacement for Allen in the collection of statues, two for each state, that stand in a gallery in the Capitol.

This statuary controversy has brought to light (and to historical life) a long-forgotten hero of one of the great statutes ever produced in the Capitol, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which today stands as one of the signal legacies of the Kennedy years, one of the great achievements of the Lyndon Johnson administration and one of the signature moments in America's long struggle for equal rights. He is Rep. William M. McCulloch, who played a forgotten but indispensable role in passing the landmark legislation.

On the surface, McCulloch was the unlikeliest of warriors in the cause of civil rights. He was the prototype of the Republican country lawmaker of the time, deeply skeptical of big government, proud of husbanding his office allowance and giving some of it back to the government every year. The portion of his district population that was black: 2.7 percent.

But McCulloch "considered himself a constitutional lawyer and felt that the Bill of Rights was meant for all the people, not just the white and the rich," wrote Barbara Whalen and former GOP Rep. Charles Whalen of Ohio, who served with McCulloch, in their legislative history of the 1964 civil rights bill, "The Longest Debate." And when the strategists of the Kennedy administration went searching for a Republican to help grease the legislative tracks for this most difficult of political gambles, they sent Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall to tiny Piqua, Ohio, to meet the small-town country lawyer with the big-time national conscience.

Thus began some of the most consequential and least-known negotiations in the history of American politics. McCulloch would embrace the black cause. The Democrats would not water down the legislation. The Republicans would get credit for their efforts. Along the way many of the principals would abandon their principles. Through all of this, McCulloch stood as the great gyroscope of the legislation.

In passion and in importance, the struggle over civil rights in the back corridors matched the struggle in the streets. Despite the tumult McCulloch emerged, in John F. Kennedy's words, as "the chief fellow," even though you probably have never heard his name.

In the last few months, as supporters conduct McCulloch's final campaign for Capitol Hill, a remarkable letter from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis -- a letter unknown to the McCulloch family and to Caroline Kennedy, who expressed surprise when a copy was handed to her this month -- was discovered.

"You made a personal commitment to President Kennedy in October 1963, against all the interests of your district," the president's widow wrote. "When he was gone, your personal integrity and character were such that you held to that commitment despite enormous pressure and political temptations not to do so." She went on for three full pages, saying that McCulloch's commitment was "a light of hope in an often dark world, and one I shall raise my children on as they grow older."

Then she concluded: "And as for my dear Jack, it is a precious thought to me that in the last month of his life, when he had so many problems that seemed insoluble, he had the shining gift of your nobility, to give him the hope and faith he needed to carry on."

That gift, from Rep. McCulloch of Piqua, shines all the brighter because of the unremitting darkness of partisanship in our own time.

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